In 2017–18, only 37% of food standards checks scheduled actually took place compared to 43% in 2012–13. Furthermore, this has been coupled with a staffing decline of 45% during the same period.
The report suggested that local authorities were struggling to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure business compliance with the law due to these budgetary cuts.
In responding to the challenge of funding, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has indicated that food businesses themselves might have to carry the cost of regulation as part of its Regulating Our Future programme.
Currently, 73% of costs are being met by local authorities, but NAO suggested that this could be set to change if restrictions on budgets continued.
‘Councils facing a funding shortfall’
Responding to the report, Kate Nicholls, chief executive of Food Hospitality, said: “The lack of funds for local authorities is potentially bad news for businesses. We are worried that councils facing a funding shortfall may increasingly look to shift yet more of the burden on to businesses.”
However, despite the decline in funding, actual standards of food hygiene and safety across England were relatively stable. The FSA hit its target of 70% of food businesses achieving a rating of five in the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) and 98.5% of meat businesses have met a satisfactory level.
The report also found foodborne illnesses were remaining stable, below their baseline.
The NAO report highlighted the importance of public confidence in the quality and safety of food, as opposed to objective evidence of its authenticity. This comes amid calls for a mandatory regulation that all businesses display their FHRS score on their premises to give customers more information about their food.
Positive effect on business compliance
This suggestion was supported by local authorities and its introduction in Wales appeared to have a positive effect on business compliance with food standard regulations.
Nicholls also questioned the need for a mandatory display of hygiene ratings, pointing out that, often, businesses had to wait around for a long time with a rating that does not reflect their current state.
Nicholls was in favour of more flexibility of the ratings system, which would allow businesses to pay for re-inspections after they had acted on recommendations.
Finally, the report briefly addressed the future challenges that food regulation was likely to face. Brexit was at the forefront of the discussion in the short term, with new a registration system for food businesses likely to be required. However, the NAO also recognised longer-term issues, such as climate change and rises in population.