Accuracy of remote assessments was a key concern raised by most local authorities, according to an evaluation of the technique’s use during the pandemic.

Local authority officers feared information was vulnerable to manipulation by food businesses and problems could be missed resulting in public health risks. There was also the inability to use instincts and sensory awareness to assess the business such as the loss of smell to detect pests and being unable to see how staff interact.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) asked consulting and technology services provider ICF to evaluate food firms and local authority experience of using remote assessment in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland for food hygiene and food standards checks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Remote and onsite differences
One officer explained how, upon re-visiting a butcher deemed to be operating satisfactorily during a remote check, several cleanliness problems were identified which had not been picked up via phone calls or through images the company shared.

Another local authority reported there had been various incidences where food business claims made during remote check-ins via phone calls had not tallied up with what they saw in onsite follow-up visits.

Remote assessments were judged to be more appropriate in lower risk businesses as there was a reduced public health risk associated with failing to identify food hazards. Those working with food hygiene-only controls perceived virtual audits to have more limitations than those dealing with food standards.

The study included 20 interviews with local authorities and while three food businesses opted-in only two interviews were completed between October and December 2020 with a family run café and a family owned butchers.

The FSA said it was considering the findings to help inform decisions on any further testing or trials to assess where remote approaches might be used more in the future.

As part of its response to coronavirus, the FSA let local authorities use remote assessments in some circumstances. Food hygiene ratings could only be given or updated following an onsite visit. However, one unnamed authority admitted issuing such ratings using a remote assessment, contrary to the FSA’s advice.

Eighteen local authorities used remote assessments. The two that didn’t cited limited resources, reduced access to technology and they didn’t think they could ease their workload or bring other benefits.

Three stopped using remote assessments as they didn’t see any benefits of them once lockdown had eased and they were able to visit food firms again. Seven other authorities reported using them less between June and November 2020 due to loosening of lockdown restrictions.

Positives, food standards focus and company views
Research revealed virtual assessments were mostly used to exchange documentation and information about food businesses pre-inspection, to identify points of focus for subsequent onsite visits and to help authorities determine whether an imminent onsite visit was required or could be delayed.

Local authorities agreed the techniques had been useful so work could continue safely during the pandemic and to prioritize making visits to the most urgent cases. They used them to assess, and potentially postpone, visits to new businesses likely to be very low risk such as home bakers.

Many local authorities used phone calls and emails to carry out remote assessments, while only four used video technology or bespoke services. Most officers said the time spent doing inspection work had increased since they started using remote methods in conjunction with onsite inspections.

Of the authorities who did remote assessments, 12 created a dedicated code on data management information platforms to record them distinctly from conventional work, following the FSA’s recommendations. In practice, however, five didn’t use the codes consistently, so were unable to report the number of assessments conducted.

Officers involved in remote food standards controls explained that things such as food quality, processes and labelling could be assessed relatively confidently via remote means. However, this was not possible for food hygiene parameters such as observing cleanliness.

The two food firms were pre-warned about visits. Both said they had used this time to prepare paperwork for the inspection.

Benefits for these companies included having inspectors onsite for less time than on other occasions and service not being interrupted because assessments were pre-scheduled. Limitations were the administrative and time burden of finding and scanning required documents, and filling in additional forms and the loss of regular informal interaction between them and authority officers during site visits, for building trust and asking for advice casually.

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