The number of public complaints about food and food sites spanning three countries has increased, according to a report published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Local authorities recorded nearly 71,000 complaints about food safety and hygiene of food establishments during 2019-2020. This is a rise of almost 5 percent from 2018-2019 across three countries. Food standards complaints, which cover authenticity and food fraud, went up by 3 percent to almost 11,000 in 2019-2020.

The statistics are for food law enforcement by local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The report covers April 2019 to March 2020. Information is from local authorities and is compiled by the FSA.

The Local Authority Enforcement Monitoring System (LAEMS) covers regulatory activity on food hygiene including microbiological quality and contamination of food by microorganisms or foreign matter; and food standards including composition, chemical contamination, adulteration and labelling.

For food hygiene, overall there was a marginal decrease in reported staff numbers compared with 2018-2019 but there was an increase in resources for food standards.

In England, complaints on food safety and hygiene increased by 5 percent to 64,397 and those for food standards rose by almost 5 percent to 9,542 in 2019-2020. In Wales, complaints increased 9 percent to 4,480 but issues on food standards decreased by 14 percent to 623. For Northern Ireland, complaints declined by 16 percent to 1,894 and food standards ones dropped slightly from 744 to 742 in 2019-2020.

Sampling and enforcement figures
Official food samples are tested by official control laboratories. A total of 44,026 samples were reported as being taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2019-2020, an increase of less than 1 percent on the year before.

In England there was a 4.2 percent increase in samples reported, in Wales there was a 6.7 percent decrease and in Northern Ireland there was a 6.1 percent decline. Total analyzes increased from 45,673 to 46,555 in 2019-2020 including a rise in tests for microbiological contamination.

Businesses subject to at least one type of food hygiene enforcement action was 156,066 in 2019-2020, representing a decrease of 1.3 percent. This included more than 930 voluntary closures and 230 prosecutions.

There was a 10 percent decrease in sites subject to formal enforcement actions to 4,784 in 2019-2020. Establishments receiving written warnings decreased by 1 percent to 151,282.

The number of firms subject to at least one type of food standards enforcement action in 2019-2020 was 25,553, an increase of 5.8 percent. This involved seizure, detention and surrender of food on almost 100 occasions and 56 prosecutions.

The amount of sites that received at least one type of formal enforcement action increased by 45 percent to 458 in 2019-2020. The number getting written warnings went up by 5.2 percent to 25,095 in 2019-2020.

Planned visits fall
Food hygiene interventions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland decreased with 333,426 carried out in 2019-2020, a 2.4 percent reduction on 2018-2019.

Interventions are visits to food establishments for inspection, monitoring, surveillance, verification, audit and sampling, as well as education and information gathering. They ensure companies meet the requirements of food hygiene and food standards laws.

Local authorities are targeting higher risk establishments — Category A to C — for food hygiene interventions but there has been a rise in visits to lower risk Category E sites compared with 2018-2019.

The percentage of planned interventions achieved decreased from 86.4 percent in 2018-2019 to 85.7 percent in 2019-2020 across the three countries. The percentage of food hygiene due interventions at not yet rated establishments has also gone down from 89.1 percent in 2018-2019 to 87.7 percent in 2019-2020.

Food standards interventions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland increased by 2.1 percent to 106,770 in 2019-2020. However, the percentage of planned interventions has decreased from 40.8 percent in 2018-2019 to 39.7 percent in 2019-2020. Due interventions at not yet rated food establishments decreased from 59.4 percent in 2018-2019 to 56 percent in 2019-2020.

In 2019, the FSA said it was concerned about another decrease in the percentage of planned food standards interventions done and described it as a “long standing issue”.

A review in 2018 provided evidence that change was needed to address failings in the current model for food standards. The pilot study to help establish a new delivery framework was due to start in 2020 but was postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19.

Maria Jennings, director of regulatory compliance at FSA, said the agency has an oversight role to verify the checks local authorities do on food businesses.

“Whilst these figures are not dissimilar to those from April 2018 to March 2019, we acknowledge that COVID-19 has clearly created significant pressures on local authorities since the end March 2020 and we’ll be considering the impact the pandemic has had on their resources and on delivering their statutory responsibilities in relation to food at the FSA board’s business committee meeting on Dec. 8,” she said.

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