Efforts to quantify the level of risk posed by food sold online are at an early stage, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom.

In a paper presented at the latest board meeting, the authority acknowledged limitations of the existing regulatory system are being exposed as some new companies set up online and, deliberately or not, don’t register as a food business, therefore avoiding local authority inspection and assurance.

Issues identified so far include unregistered businesses and a lack of standardization when selling food online. The FSA’s initial assessment is these are relatively low risk with options emerging to address them.

Delivered food is the smallest sub-sector of the foodservice market but the fastest growing. Aggregators such as Just Eat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo have the majority of the UK market share. To help understand and assess consumer risks from online food sales and identify regulatory gaps, the FSA is talking to these aggregators, Amazon and Google.

Progress so far
There are also other different ways to offer food for sale such as social media sites, online marketplaces, messaging apps and other web-based platforms. The subject has gained increased attention during the coronavirus pandemic.

The issue of homemade food being sold on social media was covered years ago by trade magazine The Grocer. The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation raised the topic with the FSA following a BBC investigation in 2020 and again in early 2021. Both times the agency said such sales of homemade food was “concerning.”

An example of FSA work to help understand the number of businesses trading but not registered included using the Google Places API. FSA staff looked across two geographies with varied demographics and identified about 7 percent of firms trading that were potentially not registered. However, it only includes businesses with a physical address and not those that trade through online marketplaces.

To address this gap, the FSA is trying to understand the scale of businesses operating on these marketplaces, in response to anecdotal evidence of a large volume of food sold via this route.

FSA and local authority officers are aware of food being sold and shared online, in multiple languages, potentially with no traceability or safety checks. The ease of entry for online food sales enables businesses to quickly set-up and easily reach a wide range of potential customers.

The agency is working with an unnamed security technology company that can identify which online channels or platforms are the most used and what kinds of products are being sold.

The FSA has also commissioned research on consumer attitudes toward buying food offered for sale online with another report to the board expected in 2022.

Updating food rules
The focus on online is part of the agency’s Achieving Business Compliance (ABC) program, which is trying to modernize food regulation.

One pilot is looking at an enterprise level approach. Currently supermarkets with many shops are all inspected on a premises-level basis by individual local authorities, although some have a relationship with a primary authority. The project is seeing how the whole business could be regulated as a single entity. Discussions are underway with Aldi, Morrisons, Tesco, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.

Expected benefits include reduced duplication of some elements of local authority inspection activity, allowing council resources to be used at businesses posing higher risk, and increased oversight.

The plan is to pilot new approaches with a number of businesses during 2022-23. The initial focus is food hygiene but food standards could also be considered later.

The FSA said the project would not lower the standards companies are required to meet, and self-regulation is not being considered. The aim is to ensure compliance at a business rather than an individual site level.

The British Retail Consortium, Food and Drink Federation, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and eBay are among groups given an overview of the program.

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