The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has expressed concern that local authorities do not have the resources to deliver food controls.
Local authorities are responsible for enforcing compliance with food safety and standards legislation for food businesses. The FSA monitors and reports on their performance but does not decide how they are funded.
FSA said the latest data shows local authorities are “a long way off” from meeting the required frequencies of interventions at lower-risk establishments. This means some outlets in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have not been checked for many years.
Between April and September 2023, local authorities carried out 87 percent of due interventions at Category A establishments; 82 percent at Category B sites, 68 percent at Category C; 42 percent at Category D; and 18 percent at Category E establishments. Category A sites include large manufacturers, while Category E includes occasional home bakers.
Potential of risk level to change
While most sites with overdue inspections have been judged to pose a low risk to consumers, in some cases, the nature of the business may have changed, increasing the risk. Other data suggests a dip in performance in the higher-risk categories as authorities try to address the backlog. There are also about 39,000 new businesses awaiting a first inspection.
The proportion of due interventions in categories B and C has been very low for food standards since April 2023. However, changes to how checks are done are being introduced.
In October 2023, for the first six months of the reporting year, local authorities reported 17,305 samples. There has been a slight increase in formal enforcement actions but a reduction in written warnings compared to pre-pandemic figures.
Feedback from local authorities has highlighted overstretched financial resources and difficulty in recruiting and retaining competent officers. There is also a reduction in business standards, an increase in new food business registrations, and people being needed in other regulatory areas.
Local authority employees said these factors lead to challenging circumstances, such as more enforcement work, hostile food business operators, and fewer staff.
FSA commissioned Ipsos UK to research local authority capability and capacity.
This work found the numbers starting and completing qualifications to deliver official food and feed controls are not enough to meet the demand in local authorities and that competing pressures contribute to a lack of allocated resources for food controls.
Participants attributed issues with the recruitment of potential officers to three factors, including the complexity of the qualification system with multiple pathways, which makes it hard for prospective students and local authorities to navigate.
Research revealed resource constraints act as a barrier to bringing early career professionals up to full competence, pay was viewed as relatively low, and there was a lack of awareness about environmental health and trading standards careers.
Issues negatively impacting retention of qualified staff included a lack of career progression opportunities, early retirement among experienced staff and the changing nature of the role due to the pandemic, a focus on higher-risk companies, and Brexit.
Impact of worker shortages on safe food
Other research has examined the impact of labor supply shortages on key aspects of the food system, including food safety.
Labor shortages in the meat processing industry have reduced slaughter rates, resulting in less meat entering the supply chain. Reducing the number of animals taken from farms to slaughter presents animal welfare challenges and traceability issues due to overstocking. Supply uncertainties increase vulnerability to fraud, diversion of products, and production at unapproved premises.
A rise in imports means more resources are needed for border checks. Most imported meat is processed and packed in retail form after it enters the UK. Potential delays at border control points mean meat will be in transit longer, bringing food safety risks. As meat produced abroad is outside the FSA’s inspection remit until it enters the UK, researchers argue this increases the risk of food hygiene breaches and food crime incidents.
Staff shortages in the fruit and vegetable sector mean employees work longer hours, with inexperienced workers inspecting fresh produce. A shortage of HGV drivers in 2021 led to fresh produce being moved quickly and deposited for longer on farms that lacked appropriate storage facilities.
Researchers found a relationship between consumers’ concerns about labor shortages affecting production, processing, packaging, and supermarket retailing and their concern with food safety. As their levels of concern with all these supply chain elements reduce, so does their food safety concern.
The rise in flexitarian, vegan, and vegetarian diets, substituting meat for non-meat protein or meat alternatives, has implications for the FSA regarding the skills and knowledge required for inspecting these foodstuffs, including identifying fraud and adulteration risks.