Due to COVID-19, EHPs across the UK are having to get to grips with a backlog of up to six months of food safety and hygiene inspections – equating to around 120,000 inspections.
Lockdown has, however, changed working patterns for many, and accelerated digital take-up and remote working has prompted debate on how to incorporate new methodologies into the profession safely.
In June the FSA’s head of regulatory compliance, Michael Jackson, informed the agency’s board that it was looking for ways to move forward with remote visits as part of its modernisation agenda.
Jackson said: “We want to learn from this particular approach and from there we can figure out how we can make remote assessment a feature of our model going forward – not a replacement but to enhance the approach.”
An inspections backlog was a major concern for EHPs at Tendring District Council in Essex at the start of lockdown and led them to test a digital inspection platform from Scores on the Doors.
Carol Archibald, team leader for food, health and safety, realised that while some professions could use generic apps and software like Zoom and WhatsApp to carry out work remotely, they didn’t provide the level of transparency required for EH.
Paul Hiscoe, founder and MD of Scores on the Doors, used camera software and Blitz (already used to repair photocopiers remotely) to develop ‘Inspector ShowMe’. After finessing the tool, Tendring’s team have used it to carry out 50 remote visits. They have also run a focus group with staff, and surveyed food business operators about it.
Feedback has been positive and the team are keen to use the tool to award hygiene ratings, which Archibald recognises is controversial. But she said the food businesses they’ve been working with have been very cooperative, proactively volunteering information. She is also in talks with the FSA about it.
“We started off by saying we wouldn’t rate but then the team felt very strongly that we should rate because the quality of what we could see was so good.”
Scores on the Doors suggests food businesses be operating at category levels of C and D to qualify for digital inspections, although this should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Hiscoe added that trust is an important factor: “If it is a large, high-risk business with a poor track record, the tool wouldn’t be recommended for a primary inspection – but it could be used for re-inspection.”
He recommends getting a floor plan so the EHP can direct the food business owner around the premises to investigate. If the EHP is not satisfied, a follow-up physical inspection can be done.