The National Audit Office (NAO) has raised concerns about the ability of the current food regulatory system in England to achieve value for money – while acknowledging that failures in food safety have potentially ‘catastrophic consequences for human life’.
Food standards interventions that protect the public from allergen contamination and from adulteration (such as in the horse meat scandal) are declining, the NAO’s efficiency review into food controls found.
It found that just 37% of food standards interventions due, as set down in the Food Law Code of Practice, by local authorities were carried out in 2017-18 – a decline from 43% in 2012-13. Food sample testing, which the Food Standards Agency (FSA) uses to understand food risks, fell by 34% from 2012-13 to 2017-18. In 2017-18, 16 English local authorities carried out no sampling at all. The number of food standards staff fell by 45% over the same period.
The report noted that the FSA is attempting to address the deficiencies in information but the approach has not yet been tested, and local authorities have not been informed.
Further concern was raised by the NAO that the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit – which employs 80 people – 'still lacks the full range of enforcement powers' it needs to act independently, and has to work with local police. The report stated: “An effective regulatory regime is underpinned by appropriate enforcement powers.”
The report further warned that Brexit raised new risks to food safety and standards, and would have a 'significant impact on the regulatory system' and could influence the origin of food consumed in the UK.
More funding needed for EH
CIEH director for Wales Kate Thompson, whose special interest is in food safety policy, said: “CIEH welcomes the report that has highlighted a number of issues we have already been campaigning on, such as the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme. Consumers have been waiting long enough in England for a mandatory scheme.
“The EH workforce is under unprecedented pressure in the face of austerity. The report makes the case for halting the erosion of public protection, and in particular the EH workforce in local government.
“We would like to see the FSA reinstate its support to local authorities for food sampling. On the one hand it is recommending to government full ingredients labelling for food prepacked for direct sale but not providing sufficient funding at a local level to carry out checks that food is actually what it says it is on the label.”
Comptroller and auditor general for the NAO Gareth Davies said: “The regulatory system is showing signs of strain with fewer food control staff in local authorities and delays in the checks they carry out on food businesses.
“This is at a time when the regulatory system faces increased challenges, particularly as we move towards new trading relationships after the UK leaves the EU."
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts urged the FSA to “take urgent action, including to address the gaps in its ability to assess compliance with food safety standards and to ensure preparedness for different scenarios following Brexit.”
Hillier added: “Consumers are being let down by a lack of information on the food they eat. It is not good enough that almost half of English businesses do not display ratings in their premises.”
The report found that the proportion of hygiene interventions due that were carried out rose between 2012-13 and 2017-18, from 82% to 86%. It also found that food businesses were meeting hygiene requirements, and that levels of major food-borne illnesses have been broadly stable.
Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the number of food businesses ‘broadly compliant’ with food hygiene requirements in England increased from 87% in 2013-14 to 90% in 2017-18. And as of March this year, 70.1% of businesses have achieved the ‘very good’ compliance rating against a target of 70%.
However, the NAO report found that the FSA had gaps in its evidence and needed 'robust data to demonstrate whether the regulatory system is driving compliance by food businesses and to assess whether the FSA is achieving its objective's.
In terms of Brexit, the NAO report said the FSA has spent £6.2 million of its budget on EU Exit preparations and received £15 million of extra funding for EU Exit across 2017-18 and 2018-19. Progressing non-EU Exit elements of reforms had been difficult the FSA told the authors, due to the need to prioritise Brexit related work.
FSA responds to report
The FSA said is was pleased the NAO backed its call for mandatory display of hygiene ratings in food businesses in England, and that is was 'making firm plans' for the National Food Crime Unit to have the stronger powers it needs.
FSA chief executive Jason Feeney said: “The recommendations in the report make good sense and I am pleased that we are already taking steps to address the proposals aimed specifically at us in the report. In particular we acknowledge that our sampling strategy needs to include an assessment of the amount of and approach to sampling that will ensure consumer confidence. As recommended we are also pressing ahead with developing indicators to assess local authority performance and to ensure our Food Crime Unit is effective.”