Changes to consumer behavior, regulation, and resource issues are factors impacting food safety, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Katie Pettifer, strategy and regulatory compliance director at the FSA, recently said change is becoming a theme after speaking at the event last year on how constant change was the new normal.

“The first change is times have got even tougher for businesses and consumers. Between May last year and this year, food prices rose by over 18 percent. The impact of rising food and fuel prices also comes alongside a series of challenges for supply chains due to Brexit and the Ukraine war,” she said at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) food safety conference.

“We are beginning to see disruption from climate change too. It is a worrying time for those of us working to make sure food is safe. FSA data tells us that around 25 percent of people have reduced cooking times and temperatures each month, and over 20 percent have turned down fridges or freezers to save money. We’ve heard plenty of stories from local authority food safety teams about businesses cutting corners too.”

Managing workload
A second change is local food teams getting food safety inspections back on track after the pandemic.

“When I spoke last June, I said we thought food hygiene standards seemed to have remained high, but there were some big unknowns because many businesses had not been inspected for some time. Staff diverted during the pandemic have returned to food hygiene work. Interventions are back on track in the high-risk categories, and the numbers of unrated businesses have been coming down all year,” said Pettifer.

“In April, we were able to bring our local authority recovery plan to an end and return to the normal expectations in the Food Law Code of Practice. I know from what I’ve heard from many environmental health professionals that a lot of work can be needed to help get businesses back on track when they are re-inspected after a long break, and resources are stretched. It is difficult to recruit and retrain professional staff.”

Making the most of limited resources was also mentioned.

“We need local authorities to make the best use of their resources, particularly when they are stretched. We know about food standards that weren’t happening in the past. So we are changing the model for food standards controls,” said Pettifer. 

“It will be more risk-based, focus more on the less compliant businesses, will be more intelligence-driven and we’ve introduced an FSA-directed sampling budget to support it. It will enable local authorities to make more choices about the right type of intervention to use. Local authorities that piloted the model were three times better at finding non-compliance than in the current system.”

The standards model is being rolled out in the next two years, and a pilot will soon start in Wales. A comment period on the updated food hygiene model has recently closed. Pilots will begin in 2024.

Food Authenticity and future regulatory approach
Pettifer also mentioned developments around food import checks and domestic law, such as precision breeding, and spoke about food fraud and authenticity.

“The first line of defense is businesses themselves; they have legal obligations to ensure the food they produce and sell is authentic. Second is food teams in local authorities, who conduct inspections and other controls to ensure businesses comply with the rules, and third is the FSA. There are some controls we carry out directly. Still, for most of the industry, our role is to oversee local authority delivery, monitor performance and take a national level view on whether the system is working,” she said.

“There are over 600,000 food businesses in a sector which employs 4 million people but in local authorities across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there are 1,800 trading standards and environmental health professionals working on food and in the FSA working on that third line of defense there are fewer people still.”

FSA has also been trying new forms of regulation that might help in the future.

“We are three months into a pilot with some of the major supermarkets to test whether it is possible to make an assessment of how good their food safety systems and processes are at a business level and feed this into the way they are regulated, rather than just looking at the outcomes at store level. The pilot is alongside planned inspection for a year. We’ll have an independent evaluation before we decide on the next steps,” said Pettifer.

“We’ve been looking at how we can strengthen the first line of defense when it comes to food hygiene with the three big food delivery platforms. We want them to use their influence to improve food safety. We’ve been working with them on a charter covering areas like ensuring all businesses on their platform are registered and have a minimum food hygiene rating score.”

DNP and food crime
Andrew Quinn, deputy head of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), gave an update on 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP) being added to the Poisons Act in October.

“Some other good news is we were contacted recently by our partners in the FDA, who secured a conviction against William Merlino, who was 85 years old. He got sentenced to 33 months in prison for selling DNP. That investigation resulted from the NFCU identifying Merlino as the supplier of DNP to a UK individual that died from its ingestion.”

A year-long investigation by FDA revealed that Merlino, a retired physician, packaged and sold DNP as a weight-loss drug and used Twitter to advertise, eBay to sell, and email to communicate with customers in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. Merlino operated his business at home from November 2017 until March 2019, earning $54,000 from sales to hundreds of people.

Quinn also covered an independent review of NFCU, the publication of a food crime assessment being pushed back until 2024, and an upcoming public consultation in relation to access to section 18 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) powers.

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