A new report from the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) has said more work is needed to ensure sustainable food safety regulation.
The ‘Ensuring food safety and standards’ report, released today, urges the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to work closely with other departments to address the growing risks posed by climate change and population growth, as well as pressing issues including disease and food fraud; while maintaining financial sustainability in the food regulation sector.
While the majority of the UK’s food businesses were shown to adhere to hygiene regulation, with 90% of businesses described as ‘broadly compliant’ with food safety requirements between 2017 and 2018, local authorities’ spending on food safety regulation has dropped by 19% from the 2012-2013 spending period to 2017-2018, with wider funding cuts cited as a causal factor. Staff numbers in the field of food hygiene fell by 13% during this period; while staffing in the food standards sector dropped by around 45%.
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.”
With the UK provisionally set to leave the EU on 31 October, the FSA – like many other sectors – has been scrambling to prepare, reprioritising its reforms and shoring up its risk management capabilities. This process has been hampered by a lack of cohesive guidance from the government, as well as delays to the parliamentary programme which have led to an inability to enact legislative change in the field of sustainable food safety regulation.
Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said in a statement: “Food regulation, which is critical to ensuring food is safe, is under pressure. Worryingly some local authorities are failing to meet their statutory duties to ensure that food businesses comply with food laws and, more widely, the regulatory system is struggling to keep up with the pace of change. Consumers are being let down by a lack of information on the food they eat. It is not good enough that almost half of English businesses do not display ratings in their premises. The Food Standards Agency must take urgent action, including to address the gaps in its ability to assess compliance with food safety standards and to ensure preparedness for different scenarios following Brexit.”