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Birmingham council ‘unable to fulfil food safety function without external help’, says report

EH team needs 12 additional officers to prevent inspections backlog.
25 July 2019 , Katie Coyne

Birmingham City Council will need to draft in outside help to get it up to date with its food hygiene inspections, a report to the council has revealed.

The authority’s food law enforcement plan warned that the EH team needs an extra 12 full time equivalent EH officers to prevent it from developing a backlog of inspections again.

The report, which outlines the council’s strategy and resources to fulfil its food safety function, said: “We estimate that the plan will not be able to be delivered within the resources available.”

In terms of delivering the required number of interventions this year the report predicted the council will ‘fall short’.

Despite carrying out 1,447 unrated inspections in 2018-19, at the end of the year there were still 1,432 unrated food businesses due to the high turnover of businesses.

Nick Lowe, operations manager for food and the report’s author, said: “In a city like Birmingham there are thousands of food businesses [8,842] and there are some difficult problems.”

Some 87.5% of rated food businesses in Birmingham are classed as ‘broadly compliant’, which is “lower than lots of other places”, said Lowe.

He added: “A much bigger issue is the turnover for food businesses. In the report we have around 1,400 unrated businesses. If we clear these this year, there will be at least that number of unregistered in that year also.

“We get between 1,200 and 1,500 new registrations a year. This is a lot more than a lot of local authority food businesses in total – and we are supposed to inspect them all within 28 days. We are nowhere near that.

“For me it’s a balancing act. Do we undertake all of the interventions or not deal with the problems that we find? I am always of the opinion that where we find a problem we have to deal with it. There’s no point carrying out inspections if you don’t.”

The council will now only investigate high risk requests for assistance in relation to food hygiene, food standards and food complaints, including sporadic cases and outbreaks of infectious disease.

There are also wider implications as the report outlined that the agency staff brought in to deal with the backlog will only deal with food hygiene during their visits. They will not look at food standards or health and safety in the way that council EH officers do, as there is not enough funding.

Concerns about the impact of the council’s incremental pay freeze were also raised. The report warned: “It is becoming more difficult to retain competent and experienced officers” meaning the department was “only likely to attract newly qualified officers” which put “even greater strain” on existing staff.

Some of the newer staff brought in last year to fill redundancies – and moved over from the waste contract – are not full-time equivalent nor were they food officers.

Lowe added: “It’s difficult because obviously there are a high number of conflicting priorities and it’s where you put the resources.

“We were quite proud of delivering our food programme but gradually our compliance rate has gone down and it’s difficult for officers to work under that pressure.”

In 2018-19 the council met 68% of the programmed inspection target compared with 88.51% in 2017-18.

He added: “In Birmingham we probably have more inspections and high-profile activities than other local authorities. Yet we are constantly under pressure for being a failing authority and that affects morale of the officers as well.”

Earlier this month, for example, the council issued the city’s first – possibly England’s first – hygiene emergency prohibition notice for poor allergen controls.

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