National Audit Office report on ensuring food safety and standards

By agency reporter
June 14, 2019

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and other departments must work together to make food regulation financially sustainable and manage emerging risks such as climate change, population growth, crop disease, food fraud and potentially importing more food from non-EU countries, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Failures in food safety can have catastrophic consequences for human life, public confidence and the economy. Around 1 million people in the UK suffer an illness from food each year, potentially costing £1 billion. Managing food safety is challenging because of the highly complex food supply system, which involves food producers, processors, retailers and caterers of varying sizes.

The cost of delivering food controls in England in 2016-17 was an estimated £164 million, with 73 per cent of costs being met by local authorities and port health authorities. Spending on food hygiene by local authorities fell by an estimated 19 per cent between 2012-13 and 2017-18 because of funding pressures. Food hygiene staff numbers declined by an estimated 13 per cent relative to the number of food businesses in operation over this period, while food standards staff reduced by 45 per cent.

Consequently, some local authorities are failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with the law. The proportion of hygiene checks of businesses (including detecting unsafe food) that were ‘due’ and successfully carried out rose between 2012-13 and 2017-18, from 82 per cent to 86 per cent. However, less than half the food standards checks (to ensure food is what it says it is) that were due took place over this period, with only 37 per cent carried out in 2017-18.

Nevertheless, most food businesses are meeting hygiene requirements, and levels of major food-borne illnesses have been broadly stable. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, the numbers of food businesses that were at least ‘broadly compliant’ with food hygiene requirements in England increased from 87 per cent in 2013-14 to 90 per cent in 2017-18. Laboratory-confirmed human cases of key food-borne diseases are currently below levels that would trigger an FSA investigation.

The FSA monitors levels of illnesses from food and whether businesses are meeting food hygiene requirements. However, the FSA currently assesses whether food is what it says it is based on consumer confidence rather than on objective evidence of food authenticity. The FSA has begun to develop measures to improve its data in this area.

The public needs better information to make well-informed choices about what food to buy or what services to use. Food hygiene ratings for businesses are published online, but in England, where display is not mandatory, only 52 per cent of businesses display food hygiene ratings in their premises, compared to 87 per cent in Wales and 84 per cent in Northern Ireland, where display is mandatory. The public also remain unclear on what information food businesses should provide about whether food contains allergens.

The FSA recognises that it needs to respond to new risks and challenges and has begun reforming its regulatory system to help it better direct resources according to risk. This includes changing how food businesses are registered and introducing national inspection strategies for food businesses with more than one site.

The FSA re-prioritised some of its reforms to prepare for EU Exit. The UK’s Exit from the EU will have a significant impact on the UK as some 90 per cent of UK food legislation reflects EU regulations. Around half of the food consumed in the UK is produced in the EU and other countries, often through complex global supply systems. The FSA spent £6.2 million of its budget on EU Exit preparations and received £15 million of additional EU Exit funding across 2017-18 and 2018-19. For example, the FSA has built its capacity to deal with food incidents if the UK loses access to EU systems and networks.

However, the FSA has found it difficult to progress its reforms in other areas. Some reforms will require legislative changes, but these may not be possible in the near-term due to the parliamentary programme being delayed by the government’s preparations for EU Exit.

The government does not have a clear view on what a financially sustainable food regulation system should look like. It is considering making businesses bear more of the costs of regulation, but there are concerns that this could burden businesses and local economies. The NAO has not seen evidence of joined-up strategic thinking about the level of funding needed for a sustainable system that protects UK consumers from future food risks, and how much local authorities and businesses should contribute.

The NAO recommends that within six months of the UK leaving the EU, the FSA and government should start to evaluate the medium- and longer-term impacts of EU Exit on the food regulation system and identify potential resource gaps. Clarity is needed on what can be done to avoid incidents that may affect future confidence in the food system and trading relationships.

Gareth Davies, the new head of the NAO, 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.”

* Read the report Ensuring food safety and standards here

* National Audit Office https://www.nao.org.uk/

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