An increase in problems at food outlets and a rise in new registrations are hampering local authority efforts to get back to pre-pandemic performance on food checks.

A report at the Food Standards Agency’s business committee meeting this past week gave an update on how councils are managing as part of a plan agreed in May 2021. This document covers July 2021 to March 2023 with guidance and advice for local authorities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland on official food controls.

By the end of March 2022, all Category A establishments for hygiene should have received an onsite visit. A-rated premises include companies with a history of hygiene or compliance problems; those supplying vulnerable groups; firms with many customers; and those handling raw meat or involved in processes with a high danger of contamination.

The timeline for Category B site hygiene checks and standards controls at Category A establishments is June 30, 2022.

The latest data, which covers from April 2021 to March 31, 2022, shows that local authorities have carried out 96 percent of food hygiene visits at the highest risk sites, 80 percent of food hygiene interventions at Category B sites and 75 percent of food standards visits at Category A outlets.

More issues found and more sites to visit

However, authorities have seen a decline in compliance when doing inspections. This means they are having to take more formal enforcement action than before the pandemic and to conduct re-inspections, which is time consuming. The situation is due to factors including staff shortages in food outlets, financial pressures as a result of the pandemic and planned inspections by local authorities not being undertaken. 

Particular areas of concern are cleaning, pest control, food safety management and food substitution issues linked to allergens. 

The number of newly registered establishments awaiting first inspection was 48,996 for food hygiene and 86,581 for food standards. This is higher than the figure at the start of the pandemic in April 2020, which was 30,968 and 73,214 respectively.

Concerns have been raised about the volume of new business registrations as there is an unknown risk associated with them. Of newly registered establishments identified as high risk, 8,917 and 3,702 were still awaiting an inspection for food hygiene and food standards.

Around 51,300 businesses were rated from January to March 2022, the highest number in a quarter since Q4 2019/20. The number of firms awaiting inspection fell by 7.9 percent to 51,600. This is the lowest level since January 2021.

Of these, the largest number – accounting for 27 percent – are categorized as ‘Other catering premises’ which includes home caterers. Over 80 percent of those pending inspection in this category are registered at a private home address. Almost 14,000 new businesses were added in the quarter and more than 7,300 closed.

Local authorities are also concerned about meeting the food hygiene and standards intervention targets up to March 31, 2023. A large number of lower category establishments will require food hygiene inspections and sites in the top two risks categories will be due inspections again. 

Another problem is difficulties with the recruitment and retention of suitably qualified staff with budget cuts and recruitment freezes reported.

Other issues

The FSA Board also discussed a program which aims to cut the numbers of civil servants to 2016 levels in three years. No headcount reduction targets have yet been set for the FSA but the agency has been asked to model scenarios with significantly fewer people.

FSA chair, Susan Jebb, said she was gravely concerned about the impact a fall in staff numbers could have on the agency’s ability to deliver safe food for people in the UK.

“Our departure from the EU has brought a huge amount of extra work for the FSA which is not going away. And if we want to seize the opportunities from having left the EU, we need resources to do more not less,” she said.

A pilot was carried out in April to test the use of new remote assessment techniques to conduct audit activities, including the verification of key records. Another six trials have been scheduled with local authorities between May and July.

In terms of food crime, Operation Blackthorne began in March 2022 after intelligence was received about the substitution of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Assured Scottish smoked salmon with a lower quality product from Poland.

In 2020, there was a significant reduction in reporting of gastrointestinal infections to national surveillance coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, UK cases of Campylobacter returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, however, Salmonella and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157 remained lower for reasons which are as yet unclear. A survey on intestinal infectious disease during COVID-19 is expected to be published in late 2022.

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