Boris Johnson’s plans to slash the number of civil servants by 91,000 is a threat to food safety that could undermine the UK’s food standards, the FSA warned this week.
The Cabinet Office has asked every government department – including the FSA – to model headcount cuts of 20%, 30%, and 40% in a bid to return numbers of civil servants to 2016 levels.
If carried out, the cuts would hinder the FSA’s ability to handle dangerous food incidents such as recent salmonella outbreaks, implement import controls on EU food, and reform EU law on issues like novel foods, CEO Emily Miles told an FSA board meeting on Wednesday.
FSA chair Susan Jebb echoed her concerns. “Doing less will not only increase the risks to public health but also the risk to UK plc. Our high food standards are crucial to our ability to grow our international trade in food.”
She added: “If we want to seize the opportunities from having left the EU, we need more resources, not fewer.”
The FSA’s workforce has grown from around 960 in 2016 to about 1,200 today, largely to cope with additional responsibilities taken on since the UK left the EU.
Last week, the body confirmed it was employing an extra 70 Official Veterinarians (OV) – a 25% increase – due to the shortage of vets needed to inspect abattoirs.
The scale of the shortage has grown since the UK’s exit from the EU, with exports of animal origin products like meat and cheese disrupted due to the need for export health certificates signed off by an OV.
Margaret Gilmore, an FSA board member, said her biggest concern about the cuts was the impact on the meat industry. “We do have plans to bring vets in house and to throw out those plans, which have been very long in the making, would be a huge mistake.”
Colm McKenna, an FSA non-executive director and representative for Northern Ireland, noted that bringing the headcount back to 2016 levels – the date of the Brexit referendum – was designed to suggest “Brexit is done. But Brexit is anything but done for the Food Standards Agency.”
He also warned of the impact in Northern Ireland and Wales, both of which “place an extremely high value and reliance on the Food Standards Agency and the work they do. Any suggestion of reduction and support will be very concerning to the devolved nations.”
The FSA has added other roles to its roster in recent years, including an expansion of its National Food Crime Unit, in regulated products, and risk analysis.
Tim Riley, a non-executive director, said “it would be very easy to try and squeeze ourselves through the eye of a needle purely on workforce numbers and suffer the consequences. That wouldn’t just be to a public department, but to the public at large.”
A decision on the civil service job cuts is expected in the autumn.