Local government budget cuts threaten public health

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Food standards agency

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Swingeing cuts to local authority finances risk creating another serious foodborne disease outbreak on a par with the E.coli O157 incident in Wales in 2005, food safety experts have warned.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has implemented a number of measures to improve systems of controls and audits of inspections in the light of criticisms in the Pennington report into the South Wales outbreak, which resulted in 118 confirmed food poisoning cases and one death.

Now members of the FSA board and others are concerned that pressure on local authority finances could put improvements in jeopardy.

FSA chairman Lord Rooker said: “This is a really tight time for local government and​ [food safety] is one of the issues; it is a key function as far as the public is concerned but not the most politically sexy issue for local government expenditure – until something goes wrong.”

Outlining progress on the FSA’s Food Hygiene Delivery Programme to its Board last month, interim director of operations Steve McGrath said significantly reducing resources would “likely pose considerable risk to those outcomes without the FSA taking the most robust line”.

HACCP training

Over the past year the FSA has trained more than 1,000 environmental health officers, out of 2,500 nationally, on hazard analysis critical control point procedures, said McGrath.

“It is really important that we find fresh approaches to what are actually quite old problems,” ​said FSA chief executive Tim Smith. “When we are thinking about the ways the agencies work ... we are always left with a single big concern: that we do not have command and control of all the delivery aspects of food safety work in every corner of the UK.”

Jenny Morris, principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said: “If we are looking at a cut of 25% we are not looking at business as usual; things will have to change. What it means is things will be done differently and things will be done less. You can say we will prioritise based on risk, but there is very little fat left in the system. It isn’t going to be about efficiencies and economies, it means things will not be done.”

'Delivering more for less​'

However, a spokeswoman for Local Government Regulation, the new business name for the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services, said: “We are already looking at different ways of delivering functions, like shared services, building on economies of scale.

"Inevitably the services will look different, but it will be about delivering more for less. It will be all about using all the expertise and experience that councils have in understanding local firms; about prioritisation; and about focusing on risk.”

But Morris responded: “With shared services there are some benefits, for sure. But it is not going to be enough to deal with the level of cuts. It can reduce the impact, but if you are talking about 25%+ cuts ... there will have to be less done.”

*FSA chief executive Tim Smith will be speaking at Food Manufacture's conference, Emerging Food Safety Issues,​ in London on October 5. The event, which features an exciting line up of speakers from Sainsbury's, Campden BRI, the European Food Safety Authority, Eversheds, the British Retail Consortium and the Society of Food Hygiene & Technology, explores the food safety challenges of the future and asks whether the industry is equipped to deal with them.

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