The future of the UK’s food safety is being put at risk from “critical” shortages of frontline enforcement staff, according to a damning new report by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland released today.
Whilst the body’s annual report says overall food standards remained stable in 2022, despite pressures including inflation, labour shortages and the war in Ukraine, the agency has warned that without urgent collective action it is inevitable both food hygiene and food standards will suffer.
The FSA report claims the huge backlog of work piled up by cash-strapped local authorities from Brexit and the pandemic has left them unable to properly conduct checks on food companies.
Continuing financial pressures, which recently saw Birmingham City Council declare itself bankrupt, have forced councils to slash recruitment and move resources away from food safety roles.
The report also criticises the government for delays in the UK introduction of import checks following the UK’s exit from the EU which, along with an ongoing chronic shortages of vets, is putting public health at risk.
FSA chairman Susan Jebb told The Grocer the body had already held initial talks with the government but was now calling for urgent action to tackle the shortages.
The report highlights the “long-term decline in funding for local authorities and the reallocation of their resource away from food safety and food standards duties”.
It says there were 14% fewer food safety office posts across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2022/23 compared to a decade ago, with the fall being over 25% in Scotland.
Meanwhile, the crisis had seen recruitment of food standards officers charged with reinforcing nutritional content of food and the accuracy of labelling and advertising plunge by almost 50% in the past decade.
“The fact that the report finds food standards have been maintained is good news and I think it’s a pat on the back for the food industry, especially considering the huge issues it faced in 2022, such as the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine,” Jebb told The Grocer.
“But we would not be doing our job if we didn’t raise the threat posed by shortages of staff in key jobs that are necessary to ensure food safety.”
She added: “You have to look at what has happened with Birmingham council and listen to the other councils talk about the threats they are facing to realise the problems.
“I cannot stress enough the vital role local authorities have when it comes to food safety.”
As The Grocer exclusively revealed in June, the FSA is planning to bring in a huge shake-up of food safety, which will allow cash-strapped local authorities to focus their attention on smaller companies which pose the “greatest threat” to the public.
However, Jebb insisted the move was not intended as an alternative for investment in local authority resources.
Alongside the shortage of food safety staff and vets, the FSA highlights delays in bringing in EU import controls as the biggest threat to future food safety.
In August, the government delayed its post-Brexit border strategy for a fifth time amid fears about the impact on inflation.
The latest plans are for the introduction of border controls on EU food imports to be introduced in January 2024.
The FSA report says: “We echo our call from last year to ensure these controls are implemented without any further delay to provide a greater level of public health protection.”