Guidance from the Food Standards Agency helped local authorities handle food-related work during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an assessment.
In June 2021, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) provided local authorities with a plan for running food hygiene and food standards services during the pandemic. It will apply until the end of March 2023, when decisions are made about proposed new delivery models for food hygiene and standards.
Between April and July 2022, the FSA assessed performance against the requirements of the COVID-19 Recovery Plan. Eleven local authorities from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland were checked.
Councils all started from different places in implementing the recovery plan in terms of the impact that COVID-19 had on service, challenges faced along the way, and available resources.
Five of seven local authorities looked at in England diverted food-qualified officers to work on COVID-19 regulations and to deal with outbreaks.
Authorities in Wales were heavily affected with key staff members seconded to the COVID-19 response and the fact that restrictions were kept in place for longer than in other parts of the UK.
Local authorities reported cases where standards in businesses have dropped and formal enforcement was required to bring them into compliance. The time required to do a food hygiene inspection has also increased because of falling standards. The number of newly registered outlets awaiting a first inspection added to the issues faced.
The recovery plan had two phases. The first required authorities to do a prioritization exercise for checks at new businesses and to start planning an intervention program. The second set of five milestones in relation to undertaking onsite interventions at food businesses.
Nine of 11 councils had completed all interventions due at food hygiene category B-rated businesses and 80 percent had done all planned checks at food standards category A-rated outlets by June 2022.
One authority cited resources as the main reason for missing the deadline, as some staff had not returned from COVID-19-related work as well as wider issues with recruitment and vacancies.
Risk-based response and sampling
Officials generally had a risk-based approach to official controls at businesses impacted by the new requirements on allergen labeling for products prepacked for direct sale (PPDS).
Only four of 11 councils were fully implementing internal monitoring procedures. Such work helps ensure official food controls and other activities are carried out consistently.
Local authorities were found to have taken a risk-based response to how they managed and responded to food incidents, food hazards, and complaints, dealing with higher-risk issues that emerged during the period.
The ability to do reactive sampling in response to requests, complaints, or incidents was maintained. Around a third did not conduct proactive sampling, citing resources as a contributory factor. Some had temporarily paused routine sampling programs to prioritize resources. Food laboratory capacity was also listed as an issue. A few local authorities wanted greater clarity on food sampling requirements in the recovery plan, such as how much sampling and what type was required.
Almost two-thirds of local authorities attempted to use remote interventions. They were only done at well-established, low risk and broadly compliant food businesses, or to confirm a corrective action had been completed. However, they did not necessarily improve the efficiency of onsite inspections with most preferring to continue with onsite visits with no more steps in the process.
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