Most food companies feel leaving the European Union has affected operations while many said COVID-19 didn’t impact their ability to meet regulatory requirements, according to a survey.

The poll, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), included 400 businesses in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, plus interviews with 60 companies. Work took place between June and August 2022.

It covered businesses’ experience of working with the FSA, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, and familiarity with a program designed to modernize regulatory approaches.

Seven in 10 said they had a good experience with the FSA. Only 2 percent reported a poor experience. This represented little change from when the survey was last done in 2020. 

Firms in the wine sector were mostly positive. Meat companies also typically had a positive experience, with a significant increase from 2020. Those in the dairy sector were less positive but only 2 percent reported a negative experience. Negative views covered factors including auditing not being consistent, and staff being slow or unclear in feedback and reports.

Less than half of respondents were unclear on how the FSA makes decisions in its work with firms. Some said there were differences between what the FSA might tell them to do and what other organizations like Red Tractor might say.

A total of 37 percent were unsure about the charges they have to pay the FSA and 29 percent about how the agency is funded. Overall, the meat sector felt they had a better understanding of these aspects than those in dairy and wine. This might be because they have more contact with the FSA because of agency staff being based on site, according to the report.

Pandemic and Brexit impact
Three-quarters of survey respondents said the COVID-19 pandemic had no impact on their ability to comply with FSA regulations and during interviews, some said it had actually contributed to the growth and new opportunities.

Just less than one in five companies reported the pandemic had a negative impact on the ability to comply with FSA regulations, with 4 percent stating it had made compliance a lot more difficult. The impact was most severe in the meat sector but it also slowed down processes for dairy producers. Some meat firms reported almost shutting down because they supplied fast food outlets that closed during lockdown restrictions.

Overall, businesses felt negatively affected by the UK’s exit from the EU, although there were a handful of positive comments. Negative themes included problems with recruitment, increased paperwork, issues relating to customs, and higher costs.

The majority of companies felt the UK’s exit had some level of impact. Wine businesses were most likely to report this, followed by those in the meat sector and dairy. However, it does not appear to have affected their views of the FSA.

Avian influenza, Ukraine and Russia conflict, and rising costs were mentioned by a handful of businesses as issues affecting them, especially with higher feed, fertilizer, and fuel costs.

Opinion of FSA
Three-quarters of respondents were satisfied with the FSA’s communication, although only 18 percent said they were “very” satisfied. Reasons for not being content included a concern that the FSA was not proactive enough in sharing information on key changes to guidelines or legislation and there were often delays in responding to queries.

Companies were asked about their satisfaction across FSA activities, including inspections, unannounced visits, and enforcement of regulations. Operators in the dairy sector were most satisfied with inspections. Satisfaction was lowest for re-approval following a change of activities.

Concerns included missing communication and structure for unannounced visits, a lack of skills among some assessors, and of consistency in how official veterinarians interpret compliance.

Of two interviews with shellfish operators in England, both were critical of processes about how decisions are made on water quality and how grading works. However, the FSA is not responsible for water quality.

About six in 10 reported they found it easy to comply with FSA guidelines. The most common difficulty related to the clarity of the guidance, followed by complicated processes, and increasing burdens on staff time. 

Less than a quarter had heard of the Operational Transformation Programme, with awareness higher in the meat sector compared to dairy, and in England compared with Wales. The structure and scope of this program have been changed since the survey took place.

There was a mixture of caution and optimism. While some felt it might make for a more efficient, targeted approach to regulations and compliance, others were concerned it could lead to more work and wondered if consumers would back the changes.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)