The head of the Food Standards Agency has said she is increasingly worried about the impact of local authority funding shortages on food safety.
Emily Miles said the coronavirus pandemic has served as a reminder of the financial problems local authorities have had to contend with in recent years. The FSA chief executive spoke on day two of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) food safety conference, which runs through today. For highlights of day one click here.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report in 2019 found food hygiene staff numbers had declined about 13 percent relative to the number of businesses operating between 2012-13 and 2017-2018. The amount of food standards staff also fell by an estimated 45 percent.
A worsening situation
“Local authorities have told us the situation has continued to decline since the NAO report. At the start of this financial year, 80 percent of professional posts that local authorities needed to run their food services were allocated budget for 2020-21,” said Miles.
“So in other words, local authority food teams went into the pandemic already 20 percent below full strength and these stretched resources have been further depleted. It varies widely across the country but in England, over 40 percent of local authorities have lost 70 percent or more of staff in their food team to COVID-19 redeployment.
“The decisions CEO’s in local authorities are having to make week in week out with the pandemic are incredibly tough. I want to be clear to the relevant parts of government that there simply isn’t enough funding available for local authorities to carry out their duties on food safety and this poses a real risk to consumer protection. We want to protect the country’s ability to assure food safety and food standards and this is critical to public health and consumer safety but it is also vital for the food industry and our ability to export food abroad.”
Miles said history shows the impact of major foodborne disease incidents on the economy if food safety is not looked after.
“After the BSE crisis in the 1980s and 90s, the UK saw a complete loss of beef exports for 10 years with an annual value of £1.22 billion ($1.6 billion) in today’s prices and even after the EU export ban was repealed there was permanent damage to the UK beef export market,” she said.
“The size of that market in 2019 was half of that in 1995, which was pre the BSE export ban so if you get food safety wrong the impacts last for decades. Depleting regulatory resources now will have short and long term impacts that are extremely challenging to reverse. This is my message to the Treasury and others: prevention is cheaper than cure.”
Reasons for reform
There are two other reasons besides finances why reform of regulation is needed, said Miles.
“The first is from January 2021, the UK will be in charge of its food and feed law for the first time in nearly 50 years. It is not just about leaving the protection of the EU but how we are seen as a potential new trading partner by the rest of the world. About 90 percent of those regulations have been determined by Europe and whilst they won’t change on Jan. 1 we now have ability to take control and more scope for designing a system fit for the challenges we face.”
The FSA has separated risk assessment and risk management functions, doubled staff to 50 in risk analysis and added more than 300 academics to a list of experts it can call.
The second pressure is the pace of change in the industry, said Miles.
“We have seen changes in how food production has embraced digital technology, the changed relationship between the vendor and consumer, businesses have moved online and new platforms emerging has been accelerated by COVID-19. The current system has served us well. Environmental health officers and trading standards will continue to play a key role in ensuring businesses do the right thing. We need to make sure your limited resources are targeted at the areas of greatest risk,” she said.
“We did a blockchain pilot on traceability of meat from farm through to shop. What we found was people had the data and the technology worked but there wasn’t trust that the farmer should share their data with the retailer. That’s the problem we’ve got to solve so we are able to create more traceability and safety.”
The FSA has seen close to 20,000 new businesses register on its platform since the end of March and those operating from domestic settings have risen from 30 percent pre-COVID to 45 percent of new registrations in October.
Other areas being looked at are remote assessments that have been trialed during the pandemic, and will be evaluated to see how they can be used in the future. The agency is considering working with accredited third-party assurers and is still pushing mandatory food hygiene display in England. It is also developing a new food standards model with more intelligence led controls.
Seven principles of food integrity
Professor Chris Elliott, from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University Belfast, told attendees that the increase in the world’s population means we‘ve got to produce more food during the next 50 years than we did in the past 500.
Elliott spoke about seven principles of food integrity: food should be safe; authentic; nutritious; systems used to produce food should be sustainable; ethical; we have to respect and protect the environment and all those people who produce food.
Figures on foodborne illness released by the World Health Organization in 2015 showing almost 1 in 10 people globally fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, could be an underestimate as they don’t factor in issues around changes to climate, according to Elliott.
He also talked about the large Listeria outbreak in 2017 and 2018 in South Africa, saying it potentially affected many more because contaminated polony went into Sub-Saharan Africa where it is very difficult to collate data about foodborne illness and food safety issues
“Food safety is a hot topic now in the UK because of all of the issues about Brexit. As we leave the EU, should we think about genetically modified in terms of making food safer? I hope FSA will lead the debate on this as some parts of the world think it is safe and in others it is thought to be unsafe.”
Elliott said he could give examples of food fraud in salt, the cheapest possible ingredient in food and saffron, the world’s most expensive ingredient.
“One of the areas we are focussing on is herbs and spices. We recently uncovered fraud in sage in the UK. One ton of very best prime beef is worth about £12,000 ($15,700) and one ton of sage is worth about £60,000 ($78,500). In sage we found the adulteration was up to about 50 percent. People are making an extra £60,000 a ton. The consequences of food fraud are lots of money can be made and lost. But we pick up issues where people get ill and die due to fraudulent activity in our food supply system.”
Elliott said budget cuts for sampling and testing could lead to a two-tier system in the UK.
“The big supermarkets and retailers do a phenomenal job of making sure our food is safe and authentic. But you’ve got the other side of the food industry, the SMEs who are buying from Cash and Carry’s, who are buying out of the back of white vans and that seems to be like the Wild West because there is nobody looking or checking that. When we uncovered the adulteration in sage, it was all in that sector of the market.”
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