Food safety crisis could be on the horizon

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Local government

Inspections may only occur every 18 months
Inspections may only occur every 18 months
With ever-tighter environmental health budgets and the looming threat both of greater cost recovery and of privatisation, some experts claim we have all the ingredients for a full-blown food safety crisis.

Key points

At a local authority level, environmental health (EH) has always been the poor relation. Now, it is on its way to becoming an even poorer dependent in an impoverished family.

If you want confirmation of this inherited status, says vice chair of the Society of Food Hygiene and Technology (SOFHT) Alan Lacey, you only have to try reaching your local authority’s EH department on the phone. “You’ll get a recorded message with options from bin collections to dog fouling, but not even a mention of EH enforcement,​” he points out.

But present-day demands are piling still more downward pressure on to this chronically low profile. Principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) Jenny Morris says: “There’s a huge amount of change going on, and it's happening very fast.”

She explains: “Local authority resources have been cut over many years. The 2.9% budget cut for 2014/15 may not sound much, but on top of previous year-on-year cuts, the effects can be serious. Food control and hygiene tend not to feature prominently on any given authority’s agenda, meaning that EH teams – offering a largely unseen service – may be cut to a disproportionate extent. That is, until something goes wrong.”

She cites the example of Torbay Council, which last summer – according to local press – published a report stating that budget cuts meant its EH team “can no longer meet all of its statutory functions”.​ Over the previous three years, the net equivalent of four full-time posts had been lost. No low-risk and very few medium-risk inspections were being carried out.

Enforcement (Return to top)

Enforcement may be the most widely-recognised part of an environmental health officer’s (EHO’s) job, but advice and the promotion of best practice are also of critical importance. This advisory role is likely to be hit even harder by budget cuts, says Morris. And it is a function particularly valued by those small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that do not have dedicated quality/food safety teams.

“With times as tough as they are, these smaller businesses are unlikely to be able to rely on the same levels of advice and support,​” she says.

But will compounded budget reductions really have so profound an impact? Lacey at SOFHT sees less of an immediate crisis and more of a historic decline in resources and expectations, combined with some less-than-best practice on the part of EH teams themselves.

Good upfront advice can avoid the need for enforcement at a later date, he agrees. But he goes on to question the quality and relevance of much of the wisdom on offer. “Many authorities shed a lot of their most experienced staff, because they'd become too expensive,”​ he says.

Lacey, who also works as trading law manager at Asda, adds: “At the same time, I’m not totally convinced that all local authorities are equipped to provide the best advice, given their limited exposure to business practice. It’s not only about best practice in hygiene, but also fitting in with the business model.”

Lack of knowledge (Return to top)

As someone who made the move from local authority EH to retail-side trading law, he is concerned about this perceived lack of knowledge and insight. “There’s still a mistrust of private business among many local authorities,”​ he says. “The vast majority of EHOs are enforcing the law in an industry they don’t really understand.”​ There is, Lacey argues, a widespread reluctance among EHOs to acknowledge the levels of food safety expertise and investment that exist. “No respectable food company can afford to allow things to go wrong,”​ he stresses. “They make sure surveillance programmes are in place. But local authorities either don't get that, or are reluctant to accept that's enough.”

Greater understanding and trust of the structures and procedures in larger food firms would also relieve the pressure on straitened budgets, Lacey argues. And there are often other ways in which efficiency could be improved. “So often, for example, an inspection will involve two officers going out at once. But unless there's a genuine risk of assault, why is that necessary?”

Status in food safety (Return to top)

Another opportunity for greater efficiency, he says, is the government’s promotion of ‘primary authority’ status in food safety, which has been given a legal basis. “Any authority that has local concerns about an operator’s systems can refer to the primary authority, which in Asda’s case is Wakefield council,"​ he explains. “Some authorities don’t do this, and I don’t understand why, given all these concerns over precious resources.”

Now the chalk-and-cheese relationship between many council-run EH teams and private business could be tested even more severely. “With more authorities trying to offload costs, you’re seeing more talk of privatisation,”​ Morris at the CIEH reports. London boroughs Wandsworth and Barnet have made moves in this direction, as has Northeast Tyneside, she says.

But she adds: “My understanding is that a local authority cannot legally ‘privatise’ inspection or enforcement, so mechanisms such as dual contracts or secondment are being used.”

What difference would privatisation make? Morris says: “Clearly, a private firm is out to make money. All the ‘nice’ stuff, the advice and support, will probably go. And then, out of the smaller pot of money, profit will also have to be taken.”

Lacey, whose last local authority job was in Wandsworth, has been following developments. “When I was there, the authority allowed us to set up a separate consultancy. Now, there is a complete review of how they provide their service. I believe the existing team is looking to put together a proposal to carry on EH services in-house. But in any case, it will mean massive cuts in terms of the number of people.”

Where a few local authorities lead the way, road-testing contractual subtleties as they go, others are likely to follow, the CIEH predicts.

There is a view that inspections are already less frequent than they should be. “Consumers are often surprised to learn that routine inspections may only happen every 18 months or even two years,” ​Morris says. “Is that often enough? What happens in between?”

A privatised regime that put fewer boots on the ground could stretch the frequency of inspections further. But not everyone is worried about this. At industry-funded body Seafish, head of regulatory affairs Fiona Wright says: “I haven’t heard any concerns about this. If a local authority wants to privatise its EH operations, it will still be responsible for the outcomes.”

Uncertainties (Return to top)

Meanwhile, adding further to the mix of uncertainties surrounding EH enforcement is the question of cost recovery. To many in the supply chain, the concept of payment for services is nothing new, Wright points out: “For example, a primary authority agreement is chargeable. But when it comes to functions such as advice and support, local authorities are never going to charge for that.”

Then again, as SOFHT's Lacey recalls, Wandsworth Council encouraged its EH team to bill entities such as local NHS hospital trusts for its consultancy services. So, is it so far-fetched to imagine an increasing number of businesses being caught between dwindling amounts of free advice and the offer of local government-sanctioned paid-for consultancy?

For now, the extent of future cost recovery is uncertain. At the Food Standards Agency (FSA), spokeswoman Beverley Cook explains how the pie is sliced: “The annual cost of delivering agri-food chain official controls in the UK is estimated to be £171M, of which £59M is charged to industry. The remainder is funded by central and local government budgets.”

European Commission proposals to charge the full cost of official controls are still being negotiated. “At this stage, it isn’t clear whether the proposal, which includes an exemption for micro-businesses, will be adopted in its current format,​” says Cook. Given its complexity, final agreement is not expected until 2015, she adds.

Who should foot the bill? (Return to top)

As the FSA makes clear, exemptions for SMEs are far from being a done deal. Wright at Seafish asks: “If they are exempted, who’s going to pay? We simply don’t know the outcome, and there’s still an awful lot of discussion yet to come.”

The CIEH is more reassuring. “Personally, I don’t think the smallest businesses need to worry about this too much,"​ says Morris. “I don’t think there’ll be a move away from exemptions.”

Reporting industry consultation responses, Cook at the FSA says: “Full cost recovery could impact on the relationship between business and the competent authority, and how they work together to ensure compliance."​ While ministers support the goal of regulatory simplification, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to charging might be impractical, she adds, and might not promote food safety.

In discussing the ongoing evolution in red meat and poultry slaughterhouse inspections, the FSA talks about “risk-based and proportionate regulation”.​ These terms are a like ‘motherhood and apple pie’, only trendier, and are invoked with ever greater frequency in EH debates.

But as Morris at the CIEH underlines, while such measures are easy to discuss, they are far harder to arrive at in practice.

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Help employ those who could help the situation

Posted by M,

I am a technical manager in the food industry, who has recently gained an MSc in Environmental Health and who wants to work for a Local Authority. I have experience in the food industry and understand the structures and procedures in large food firms. However due to 'red tape' put in place by the CIEH, it is very difficult for me to become employed in the field (if there were any jobs!). Even more frustrating, I live near Torbay, where (according to the press) they couldn't reach their statutory functions!!!

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Stop talking & do something

Posted by Jo Head,

It is quite frustrating to keep reading about what is wrong and further discussion as to what needs doing. I am doing my best as an individual; I would dearly love to know who is responsible for change to engage with and accelerate the process.

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