As trade becomes ever more globalised it is important that food safety standards are enforced, says the FSA’s Steve Wearne.
Citizens should have reassurance that the food they are consuming is safe to eat and that safety regulation for food stores and restaurants are followed. However, as the food market and trade become increasingly global it becomes harder for standards to be met across borders. Steve Wearne, Director of Science at the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), discusses the challenges that lie ahead as the UK is set to leave the EU; what is being done to implement food safety standards at both local and national levels; and how technology can help to enforce regulation.
How can the FSA manage emerging risks such as climate change and population growth?
For a whole range of reasons, the supply chain is becoming increasingly complex and changing at a faster rate than ever before. It is already under pressure from a growing world population and a growing demand for quality protein. It is part of our role as a regulator to understand these risks so we can protect UK consumers. There are two things we are doing primarily: the first thing is horizon scanning, which our board discussed in its open meeting in June. We will be undertaking horizon scanning in the future; and we will also be eliciting expert input through annual meetings to look at the changing environment and advise us about what risks may be coming our way in five to 10 years.
The second is strategic surveillance. This is a proactive and data driven approach to understand, identify and mitigate risks in the UK food system, including food imported into the UK, using a whole range of open data around weather conditions in countries that are growing food, as well as trade. We have social media listening so that we can understand patterns and use a whole range of algorithms to understand what the current and emerging risks are. This is a predictive analytics approach and we have great interest in this from other food regulators globally – we are seen to be world leaders. We have been having discussions with the US and Canada to understand how we can share intelligence and insights and how we can all better uphold food safety standards across the supply chain.
How can risk be managed in relation to food fraud and potentially importing more food from non-EU countries?
In order to counter those specific threats – people trying to make money out of selling something that is fraudulent – we have secured an agreement across government that the role of our food crime unit should be extended beyond intelligence gathering and analysis, with new investigative capabilities. These allows us to investigate and pursue instances of food crime. This is an end to end capability, not just for disrupting potential food crime, but also for making sure we bring food fraudsters to book.
As the majority of food regulation in the UK has been driven by EU law, what challenges will the FSA face in the light of Brexit when dealing with imports and exports?
When we leave the EU, we in the UK will be responsible for many of the functions previously carried out via the European Food Safety Agency and the European Commission in terms of risk assessment and management. One of our key tasks will be managing those risks to food safety standards, so we have got ready for that and strengthened our risk analysis processes in terms of capacity and capability. We have also expanded significantly, recruiting 35 new expert advisors for our scientific advisory committees.
In terms of processes, we have taken the FSA Board through the principles that underpin our risk analysis; for example, we have been clear about governance and advising ministers on risk management options. We were ready for this at the end of March and we continue to maintain that state of readiness. Our board has reviewed our plans and they are really happy we are ready whatever and whenever that might be – that’s all we can do. Politicians will decide what happens and when; and it is our job to be ready.
How can local authorities continue to make sure they are meeting food safety standards under the pressure of decreased funding?
Local authorities always have been, and continue to be, essential delivery partners for us to ensure food is safe. We have a range of strategies in place which modernise food safety regulation and its delivery, looking particularly at performance by making sure we can provide additional support when needed. We recently separated out our audit and performance and management functions in relation to local authority performance, so we can be more targeted and flexible in what we do. We are looking at digital reporting tools that integrate all of the data streams we have, to allow us to collate and analyse that data in real time. This way we can see what is going on now, rather than waiting for local authorities to report retrospectively.
In terms of key performance indicators, we are developing those in parallel with a balanced score card so that we know we are measuring the things that make a difference in terms of delivering of public health protection. There are occasions where food safety standards are not met and that is where we identify that early and work with local authorities to develop and implement time bound action plans to get them back on track.
Can new technologies help with data collection, food regulation and monitoring?
This is an integral part of the programme we have for reforming food regulation. The case for change is strong and we need to keep up with the pace of change in the global food economy, in terms of technological enablement. We want to use new technology and data to evidence that food businesses are fulfilling their obligations. There are ways we can analyse data from third party assurance schemes – for example, working with Red Tractor gives us data that we and local authorities can interrogate without having to physically visit the business.
We are considering remote monitoring of everything from carcasses in slaughterhouses to temperature control in food retail outlets. The key here is to understand how the technologies help us assure that food businesses are managing food safety risks and how we join all this together in meaningful way. We can integrate that data to get really good knowledge and insight, so the tech is not so much of a challenge as how to analyse and integrate the data. That is the key challenge we are focusing on.
Can more be done to improve current policy surrounding food safety standards? What reforms are taking place?
Thinking about regulation and legislation as we exit the EU, the current body of EU food law will be carried over into UK food law so we will have a functioning body of law and regulation on day one when we exit the EU. That law will be exactly the same as EU food safety standards so people don’t need to be concerned that there will be a sudden dip in food quality and businesses don’t need to worry about changes in how they are regulated.
We have been thinking about reform for the past three years and we have already made some significant moves. We are rolling out online registration for food businesses, which is transformative. Local authorities have the ability to have a much more up to date register and everyone has all new food business registrations in one place, so we can understand the pattern about how food business is changing. We are piloting new national inspection strategies, so they are managed at a national level for multisite food business and we are making the case for the mandatory display in England of food hygiene rating scores like in Wales and Northern Island.
It is not just the EU that sets food rules. The UN Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) sets global food safety and quality standards and the UK is increasingly influential in that forum. We are making sure that the UK can step up to the plate. Global food challenges need global solutions, so CAC has agreed a new strategic plan up to the year 2025 focusing on a global response. Articulating the ways in which adoption of Codex standards by developing countries can help in achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 is important and food is integral to global trade. We need to understand that we operate within that global context.
Director of Science