Food safety resource challenges will leave UK vulnerable

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

The FSA and FSS flag concern with labour gap that could be detrimental to UK food safety and standards. Credit:Getty/Richard Drury
The FSA and FSS flag concern with labour gap that could be detrimental to UK food safety and standards. Credit:Getty/Richard Drury

Related tags Training & recruitment Trade labour shortage

The latest ‘Our Food’ report, which assesses food standards across the UK has been published – and it’s sending out warnings of a lack of resource in key roles.

This is the second report since the UK departed the EU and reviews food standards across all four nations.

Despite pressures such as inflation, labour shortages and conflict, it found that food standards were stable for 2022. However, it did highlight shortages in key occupations such as vets and food inspectors, emphasising that a gap in such occupations will make maintaining food safety much harder.

Problematic shortages in key occupations

Workforce data in the report reveals a 14% decline in food hygiene posts in Local Authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last decade, with more 13% of available posts vacant.

In Scotland, the number of food law officers (undertaking both food hygiene and food standards work) has fallen by just over a quarter (25.5%) compared to 2016/17.

The number of UK food standards officers has also seen a decline, dropping by 45% compared to 10 years ago. While career uptake within UK veterinary​ has experienced a 27% decrease between 2019 and 2022.

The reports warns that these gaps will not only present significant food safety challenges, but it will also impact animal health and welfare, and even the ability to export products of animal original.

Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), said she was encouraged by the overall food standards but warned it will not be upheld without intervention.  

“Food safety and standards hinge on good procedures and skilled people to ensure that the right checks are carried out,” ​she stated. “It takes time to recruit and develop these skills and we worry that without specific action to boost the workforce, specifically to recruit more official veterinarians and local authority inspectors, it will not be possible to maintain these high standards in the future.”

The FSA, together with Food Standards Scotland (FSS), are now urging government, local authorities, professional bodies and industry to focus on addressing these areas. This comes alongside recommendations for more and better-quality data to be shared across the sector to help mitigate food crime – estimated to cost the UK up to £2bn annually – and a need for controls to be introduced for foods imported from the EU.

“Failure to recruit and train professionals to key posts can have reverberations for many years to come,” ​continued Professor Jebb. “We ask governments across the UK, and others, to work with us to address these matters in the coming year so that people in the UK can continue to have food they can trust, and the strong reputation of British food abroad is maintained.”

FSS chair, Heather Kelman, agreed, as she stressed the importance of recognising “the very significant challenges ahead”​.

She added: “It is now more important than ever for those who govern the system, as well as everyone involved in food production, retail and distribution, to work together to ensure food is safe and consumers and trade are protected.

“It is critical that, together, we do everything we can to ensure we have a modernised system of assurance to support businesses that provide safe food for everyone and that the UK's high food standards are maintained, in spite of the cost and workforce pressures we continue to face.”

In other FSA news, a consultation has been launched which proposes a new framework in England for the regulation of precision bred organisms used for food and animal feed.

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