The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has urged businesses to register with their local councils following a rise in the number of new firms during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data shows 37 percent of 92,540 new ventures registered since March 2020 are run from domestic kitchens at private addresses, according to the Register a Food Business (RAFB) digital service.

During COVID-19, there has been an increase in food sold from people’s homes and marketed via the internet. Exeter City Council said it had seen an increase in home caterers, bakers and confectioners.

“Some of these activities might start as hobbies, advertising on social media but before long they meet the definition of a food business and require registration with the environmental health team,” said a council spokesman.

Possible risk to customers
Many home-based sellers do not consider themselves to be a food business, have not registered with their local authority and could be putting consumers at risk because of gaps in food safety or allergen knowledge, according to the FSA. Failing to register can result in prosecution.

Michael Jackson, deputy director and head of regulatory compliance at the FSA, said local authorities need to know about the businesses trading in their area to give them help and support to get hygiene and food safety standards right to protect consumers from the moment they open.

“If you cook, store, prepare, sell or distribute a food product then you are a food business, and you need to get registered straightaway. Our advice is clear, if you’re planning to start a new food business, or taking over an existing food business — you must register with your local authority,” he said.

The type of food produced is varied. For those operating from home or domestic premises it can vary from cake makers to those producing hot meals.

All food businesses have a legal obligation to register with their local authority 28 days before opening. They must do this whether they sell food via social media such as Facebook Marketplace or Instagram store, via e-commerce sites such as Amazon or eBay, trade from a physical premises, or run operations from a home kitchen.

Registering is free and means that local authorities will be aware of the operation and can carry out a food hygiene inspection. Officials can also give advice on how to improve food hygiene and safety practices.

In Ireland, investigations were carried out into 47 unregistered food businesses in 2020, compared to 19 in 2019 and resulted in 17 tons of unfit or unsafe food being taken off the market.

Broader picture and related work
Jim Andrews, cabinet spokesperson for public health in Barnsley, said there has been an increase in people selling food from their homes throughout the pandemic.

“That’s why we’re working with the FSA to support businesses in Barnsley to ensure they are registering and keeping us informed of changes to their businesses. Registration is free and can’t be refused. If you are already trading and have not registered, you need to register as soon as possible as this is a legal requirement,” he said.

When asked about what the agency is doing to catch those deliberately not registering, an FSA spokeswoman said: “As part of our Achieving Business Compliance program, we are currently gathering data to better understand the types and scale of risks to consumers from buying food online in order to inform our next steps.

“We are undertaking research to help quantify and understand the risks associated with unregistered businesses, as well as carrying out research around online selling routes and consumer behavior. These findings will help us identify the consumer or business interventions that will have the most impact to the assurance of food sold online.

“This campaign will use a variety of channels including targeted content running on podcasts, promoted Facebook and Instagram Marketplace adverts, and online advertising via Google search. This is the first time we have used Marketplace advertising — the rationale being that we hope to reach and engage some of those who may be selling via this channel and are not registered. We will be evaluating how each of the channels perform and the impact that this has on web traffic and ultimately registrations during the campaign period.”

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