A limited review of remote audits in England has revealed a mixed reaction from local authorities.

The study evaluated remote assessments for Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) re-rating inspections in England. The Food Standard Agency’s (FSA) COVID-19 recovery plan enabled local authorities to conduct an FHRS re-inspection under certain conditions remotely.

It found that remote assessment should be encouraged, provided the concept incorporates hybrid approaches, and the scope is extended to the entire FHRS rating process. Findings will also be considered part of FSA’s modernization of official food hygiene controls.

Low use of remote assessment
Twenty local authorities were interviewed, including 14 that had never used remote assessment for a hygiene re-rating, four that had previously used it, and two that were still using it at the time of the interview. Ten interviews with food businesses of varying sizes included eight with no experience of a remote assessment for a food hygiene re-rating and two that had received them.

A definition of remote assessment was not given, so local authorities were largely uncertain about the concept.

The report found two local authorities had used remote assessment for ratings, which was against FSA guidance. Several also incorrectly believed that any hygiene re-rating remote assessment still had to be followed by an in-person visit before a rating was issued.

Support for remote assessment was mixed. Local authorities that had not used it were not interested in doing so in the future, primarily because the low number of re-rating requests meant it was unlikely to impact their resourcing. Most respondents with experience of remote assessment would either be open to using it again or had continued to use it.

The use of remote assessment to carry out re-ratings entirely remotely was uncommon. This was mainly because local authorities received only a few eligible requests. FSA data shows 63 of 304 local authorities had used remote assessment for a FHRS re-inspection. Participants often used hybrid approaches such as digital tools to collect information and an in-person inspection.

Identified pros and cons
Such assessments were judged appropriate for highly compliant outlets with a history of good scores, lower-risk companies such as home bakers, and structural or document-related non-compliances.

Food firms were open to receiving a remote assessment, delivering it consistently across areas and to a sufficient standard with clear guidance.

Benefits included staff travel time savings and reduced costs. The drawbacks mentioned were that they sometimes took longer than in-person visits and perceived reduced validity due to a loss of sensory aspects and their scheduled nature, so the surprise element was lost.

External issues covered the types of firms requesting re-ratings being unsuitable for such an assessment, limitations in technological capacity, language and communication barriers, lack of familiarity with the remote assessment process, and privacy and data concerns.

Eight authorities noted that firms wanted value for money and would be unwilling to pay the same amount for a remote assessment as an in-person inspection.

Internal barriers to using technology included getting support from environmental health officers, insufficient guidance from the FSA, technological limitations, and knowing if and how much businesses should pay for remote ratings.

To support future use of remote assessment, respondents wanted to see clear messaging from FSA to local authorities and companies to illustrate support; and increased flexibility for councils to choose the scenarios in which they used remote or hybrid approaches.

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