Leading food safety experts have urged the government to scrap plans to outsource food safety inspections to private companies, warning they are a threat to public health.
A report by the Food Research Collaboration today also warned the Food Standards Agency’s Regulating our Future (ROF) plans, will cause crippling damage to UK food exports after Brexit.
The report by Professors Erik Millstone at the University of Sussex and Tim Lang at City University in London, attacked the FSA for pressing ahead with the controversial reforms, despite the impact of Brexit and a recent series of food safety scandals.
The agency wants to bring in plans by 2020 that include a much greater use of industry data and third-party auditing as part of the FSA’s flagship food hygiene ratings system.
The Grocer first revealed in 2016 that the authority was working with companies, including Tesco, to see how it could ramp up the use of industry data, amid fears that years of cuts had made the system of local authority inspections ineffective and out of date.
However, today’s report says the government is still to clarify exactly how it plans to manage the effects of Brexit on the UK food industry, including the issue of food safety.
It claims the FSA is already a “dangerously weakened body” with its budget cut by 23% from 2011 to 2017, and environmental health inspections falling at an unsustainable rate because of this.
The report says ROF would create “irreconcilable conflicts of interests”, with food businesses choosing who will “mark their homework” instead of facing inspections from public officials.
It said it was folly to hand over responsibility for food safety inspections and audits to private commercial third-party providers, when outsourcing to private companies had been shown to be “more expensive, less reliable” and, in the case of construction company Carillion, “unsustainable”.
The report also warned that post-Brexit the EU would “almost certainly” refuse to accept imports of UK food products, unless safety standards were enforced by public sector institutions and personnel.
Professor Millstone said: “ROF is terrible timing when government has not even clarified how UK food security will be adversely affected by Brexit.
“These changes would impose a flawed shift in responsibility for food law enforcement.
“This would be risky at the best of times but, when uncertainties abound over ‘Food Brexit’, this is bad policy being rushed through when ministers and parliament are not paying attention.
“You cannot ‘put consumers first’ by keeping them in the dark. Food companies are well aware of the risks, but the government has not listened.”
Professor Lang added: “Currently the FSA knows far too little about what food businesses are doing, but consumers know even less. To push this out of the hands of local authorities is poor governance and could be dangerous for public health.
“As food trade deals with far-off countries are proposed by the government, who will protect the consumer?”
An FSA spokesman said: “Removing local authorities from the front line of ensuring food is safe and what it says it is has no part in our plans.
“We plan to enhance the role of local authorities by making available to them other sources of information that will inform the type and frequency of inspection required.
“Local authorities will continue to have ultimate responsibility for enforcement of food safety and food standards regulation. No business will be responsible for regulating itself.”