Food testing has decreased in recent years because of budget and resource pressures and some local authorities do little or none of it, according to FSA research.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) did a small scale study to get evidence from local authorities on sampling. These authorities are legally required to inspect food and feed businesses, ensuring they meet hygiene, also known as microbiological concerns, and food standards requirements.
The Food Law Code of Practice instructs local authorities to set up, maintain and implement a sampling policy and program. However, some did not have policies even though they knew this meant they were not complying with the rules. Those who did have a policy said it was mostly generic documents that they did not use in day-to-day sampling work.
Research involved 22 telephone interviews with food leads in local authorities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland; public analysts and scientific bosses in laboratories.
Little or no sampling
There was evidence from participants that many of their neighboring local authorities are doing little or no sampling as a result of budget and staff limitations. One local authority used to take about 400 samples per year but this was now down to 120.
There was large variation in sampling practices. Despite the narrow sample of local authorities who conduct higher volumes of sampling, there were differences in budget, structure and approaches. One respondent made sampling the responsibility of an industrial placement student.
Participants recognized there was a rising need for sampling given the growth in novel and imported foods, increased focus on allergens ,and potential changes now the UK has left the EU.
The Food Standards Agency currently offers limited guidance to local authorities on how to approach sampling but is developing a new policy on the subject. A review in 2017 found that sample numbers were reducing, with variation in available capacity, resource and funding across local authorities and differences in how sampling activity is planned and how outcomes are used.
In the latest survey, respondents did substantially more proactive than reactive work — usually about 75 percent proactive, but up to 90 percent for some. Proactive sampling included surveys decided by local authorities and routine sampling of businesses. There has been a shift toward more proactive sampling in recent years while previously it was more random.
Resource and budget pressures
Many said that given the pressures on budget and resources, a targeted approach was better but reactive sampling was still a necessary part of sampling programs. Reactive sampling included response to complaints or outbreaks and local intelligence.
Resource and budget limited the amount of reactive sampling meaning not all complaints could be followed-up and some known issues such as Cannabidiol (CBD) oil in foodstuffs and watered down spirits do not get investigated.
Most participants did not specify target numbers in their sampling programs because of budget, feeling quality was more important than quantity, and the many variables that could have an impact. However, a few respondents were more focused on the numbers of samples they took during a year.
Those with dedicated sampling budgets saw them range from £10,000 ($13,600) to £75,000 ($101,700) per year. A few had no dedicated sampling budget. Those with no budget were in local authorities with responsibility for hygiene sampling only.
Respondents said it was rare for sampling to lead to prosecutions for a number of reasons, and only one local authority mentioned a prosecution prompted by sampling in the past 12 months. For most, the preference was to work with the business and support them to make improvements.
Sampling from online companies was rare with challenges including knowing where the firm was based, the volume and diversity of online businesses, and getting samples anonymously.
No local authorities had a formal approach to evaluating their sampling programs. This was because of a number of factors, including lack of time. However, most were convinced that sampling made a difference as it provided evidence to support enforcement and helped pick up issues early.
Participants also suggested the FSA could play more of a role in coordination and funding of sampling. They called on the agency to raise the profile of sampling and review funding needs across the country for standards and hygiene to make it a level playing field.
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