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Tesco has defended the Food Standards Agency’s decision to trial a new self-regulatory model, claiming local authorities do not have enough “boots on the ground” to ensure food safety inspections are conducted properly.

New figures released this week by the FSA showed a 6% reduction in the number of food safety inspectors from 2,303 in 2014/15 to 2,164 in 2015/16, while the number of UK food businesses had again increased by 1% to 633,638 in 2015/16, amounting to nearly 300 businesses for every inspector.

With Tesco piloting the new model with the FSA in a three-month trial alongside pub chain Mitchells & Butlers, Tesco technical director Tim Smith – the former chief executive of the FSA – insisted no fault should be apportioned to the agency, and that local authority cutbacks to run FSA-led schemes such as the Food Hygiene Rating Schemes (known as Scores on the Doors) were to blame.

’If we are seeing this, it must be even worse at manufacturer level’

Smith said he was shocked by the impact of cutbacks on the capacity of councils and feared the situation was even worse at manufacturing level.

“It’s boots on the ground that are missing,” Smith told The Grocer. “The FSA has a very clear plan, but I’ve spoken to people who say by 2020 local food safety officers on the ground will not be able to carry out their functions. If we are seeing this, it must be even worse at manufacturer level.”

The Grocer revealed in September that the FSA was planning a three-month trial with Tesco and pub chain Mitchells & Butlers this Christmas, to investigate how big businesses can play a greater role in food safety policing given limited resourcing. Smith said he feared the reputation of retailers like Tesco that took part in Scores on the Doors could be damaged because of a lack of credibility for the scheme unless it had adequate resources.

The FSA’s new self-regulatory approach was devised on the basis that, with dwindling resources, inspectors should be freed up to concentrate on smaller players and “rogue” operators looking to carry out food fraud, as major organisations such as Tesco not only have greater resources and new technology they can deploy but have more to lose from a brand reputation point of view.

The FSA also revealed this week that it held further meetings with organisations such as Food Solutions, the Association of Convenience Stores and Just Eat about how the food safety system could work better with smaller businesses.

It added that it hoped to announce further pilots like those with Tesco in the next few weeks.

The FSA is also launching a consumer panel to help assess the merits of the scheme.

Scores on the Doors is currently voluntary in England and Scotland but in Northern Ireland it became a legal requirement for food business operators to display their hygiene rating last month.

In Wales, where it is also mandatory, new regulations come into force next week that will require takeaway food businesses to publish a bilingual statement directing customers to the Food Hygiene Rating website, and reminding consumers they have a legal right to ask the food business for their food hygiene rating when ordering food.