Alarm over a potential increased risk of food fraud has been raised following moves by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to sanction pet food production on the same premises as food for humans.
The FSA has opted to revise guidance to allow ‘manufacturing of pet food in approved/registered food establishments from ingredients that contain products of animal origin (POAO) in a manner as food fit for human consumption’.
A nine-week consultation on the issue was carried out in March 2018 but the findings and guidance were only published at the end of last year, on 21 December 2020.
The FSA said it had received enquiries from food businesses and local authorities about producing pet food on food manufacturing premises, and that such a move could reduce food waste.
However, while the FSA guidance suggests “conditions of strict separation” to eliminate instances of cross-contamination, concerns among food safety experts remains.
Tony Lewis, associate professor at the Royal Agricultural University, said: “On the one hand, I recognise that the need to reduce food waste is a huge driver for this and FSA clearly believes that by highlighting the need to review HACCP plans and ensuring robust labelling and traceability systems they will have put sufficient controls in place.
“However, the history of food fraud in the UK is such that criminality has been and remains a significant problem – particularly in respect of the meat industry.”
Lewis pointed to Operation Aberdeen, a high profile food fraud case in the late 1990s. He added: “In this operation, large scale criminality was uncovered involving food that was unfit for human consumption being brought into to food business, visually cleaned up and reintroduced into the human food chain.
“I am worried that we will now see many more incidents of this type and I do not see how HACCP plans, labelling etc will guard against it. To my mind this is a huge backward step and, once again, the agency seems to be disconnected from reality.”
Food safety campaigner Steve Nash said he thought consumers would be “horrified” at the news. He added: “I think consumers would be most concerned about the risks of cross-contamination and also would have grave concerns about food fraud.
“[This is] at a time when the FSA is trying to change the food law codes of practice due to a shortage in EH officers, port health authority officers and trading standards staff.
“To burden the remaining overworked staff, who are at presently under extreme pressure due to COVID-19, this seems to be completely the wrong time to contemplate such a risky action.”
The union Unison also has concerns. National officer Paul Bell, who has been campaigning to keep meat inspections independent, argued that while the FSA had put safeguards in place, the move still created “significant risk”.
He added: “With all food regulation, when the TSOs, EHOs, meat hygiene inspectors and official veterinarians are not physically in the premises day to day – and won’t be except during an inspection on an ad-hoc basis – we really don’t know what happens.
“The problem with [a] risk-based [approach] is that premises are inspected based on failings during an announced visit – and FBOs will clean like mad when they know the regulators are coming. Unannounced visits happen when there is evidence to suggest malpractice or once every so often.
“Finally, the budgets of local authorities are so stretched that the resource burden of sending in TSOs/EHOs to these premises is not considered in the FSA policy.”
At the time of publishing the FSA was unavailable to comment.