The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has outlined plans to support the existing laboratory network which it says is in a “precarious position”.

The agency has obtained funding of £2.1 million ($2.2 million) per year, which will be used to deliver an improved system from 2022 to 2025. 

There has been a steady fall in the capacity and capability of Public Analyst (PA) Official Laboratories (OLs). These labs analyze chemical and compositional food samples, sent by local or port health authorities.

If the decline continues there is a “strong likelihood” that the FSA, local authorities, and other government departments will not be able to access the lab capability they require for enforcement, during incidents, surveillance and research and development, said the FSA.

The focus is not on microbiological testing as most of this is done by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) in England, Public Health Wales, and the Public Health Laboratory in Northern Ireland. 

Improve existing system
Three options are being considered. One is a centralized function funded and owned by the FSA. However, this wouldn’t work in the short term and comes with high start-up and maintenance costs.

The second, increased reliance on the private sector, is not recommended because many analytical tests will be so unprofitable that they will not be offered.

The preferred option is supporting the existing labs and National Reference Laboratories. Capability gaps would be risk assessed and prioritized to target investment. PA OLs would need to meet key performance indicators set by the FSA.

Plans were discussed at the latest FSA Board meeting, with board members content with the approach but looking forward to hearing more about wider long term plans.

Dr Duncan Campbell, honorary secretary at the Association of Public Analysts, said the group welcomed the development and was reassured by the acceptance of the recommendations.

“Members in England and Wales have already engaged with FSA staff during the last few months and we look forward to a continued dialogue. As well as providing targeted support to laboratories a crucial part of the proposals is the training and development of the Public Analysts of the future as the whole enforcement system is dependent on filling these key roles,” he said.

Food Standards Scotland is also in the process of reforming their approach to official laboratory services and sampling.

The current system in the UK is highly reliant on local authority sampling, which has reduced in recent years. Enforcement sampling by local authorities for non-microbiological tests has dropped across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland by an average of 79 percent since 2016.

Current sampling gaps
Many local authorities either take only a few or no enforcement samples, because of budget cuts and resource limitations. However, the FSA said increasing sampling to meet a target was not the “magic bullet.”

A February 2022 survey of local authorities in England and Wales found most samples taken were limited to allergens and meat or fish speciation, which are low-cost tests.

Another survey of five PA OLs found none had the ability to test for GMOs. Other gaps included pesticide testing, food supplements and rapid screening for adulteration of herbs and spices.

In 2013, there were nine PA OLs with seven owned by local authorities. Now there are only five; three owned by local authorities and two private labs. The decline of council sampling has placed the PA OL network in a “precarious” position with multiple lab closures in recent years, said FSA.

Additional testing had been provided by EU-based labs. Following the UK leaving Europe, this has been impacted by logistical issues such as samples being stuck at EU ports which increases turnaround times for local authorities receiving results.

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