Speaking at Food Manufacture’s Emerging Food safety Issues conference in London last week, Smith insisted that this was “not something we should get hysterical about”.
He added: “We’re going to have to manage with probably a quarter less cash – probably more – in four years time, than we have been used to but I promise you we will not deviate from any of our principal objectives as a result.”
Ultimately, he said, the FSA “should do the science, evidence-gathering, risk assessment and a lot of the risk management, but [needed to] hand a good deal of that responsibility back to you to manage your own food safety risks.”
Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we must think…
Significant savings would come from cutting out unnecessary duplication in the enforcement of official controls – particularly in the meat and dairy sectors – through moving towards an accreditation-based system, but also from allocating resources more appropriately in future, he said.
“Looking back, there has been a bit of a mismatch between the real risks out there and the resources [that the FSA has] allocated to them.
"Look at aspartame for example.We spent quite a bit of money looking at aspartame, but were we spending nearly enough on the real issues of food-borne illness? No we weren’t.”
As for enforcement, many food producers were effectively being audited twice, once to assess compliance with industry assurance schemes, and then again by local authorities, which in many cases were looking at exactly the same things, he claimed.
Looking again at the enforcement of official controls in the dairy sector was a key priority, he said. “[This is] partly because of the state of our finances, but also because it’s the smart thing to do.”
He added: “We’ve got about 16,000 dairy farmers in the UK and we organise something like 15,000 inspections by 66 inspectors and we’re paying DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) £2m a year for delivering the lion’s share of those inspections.
“Is that money well-spent, given that in the Netherlands, they have 20,000 dairy farmers and just two inspectors to oversee official controls and spend about £100,000 a year on them?”
Given that most of the products from UK dairy farms would go on to be “further processed in a way that pretty much eliminates known risks”, he said, “as far we’re concerned the disproportionate nature of what we are doing is pretty obvious.”
Handing back responsibility to the industry
The emphasis should instead be on accreditation, he said. “But there is a culture of responsibility that goes along with that if the industry to a large extent polices itself. Would I feel confident that my ex-colleagues in the dairy sector could do that? Yes I would.”
The same applied to meat, he said. “Every single carcase in a UK slaughterhouse must currently be inspected and stamped by one of our people.
“How disproportionate must that appear to the people that understand the real risks of food borne disease? Yet our local butcher might only get a visit from an environmental health officer every 18 months.
“Does it feel like enforcement is consistent across the food chain? No it doesn’t.”