meat one use

What does the FSA spend its money on?

£55.9m: Official controls for meat

£5.8m: Campylobacter research (including ACT campaign to reduce contamination rates in chicken)

£4.1m: Local authority support

£2.9m: Increasing horizon scanning and intelligence on the global food chain

£1.3m: Nutrition (related to the FSA’s policy responsibility for nutrition in Northern Ireland)

Source: FSA budget, March 2015; selected items

Hidden on the 115th page of the Chancellor’s spending review and autumn statement last week was a one-line reference to the FSA’s budget for the next four-and-a-half years.

It revealed the FSA’s budget would remain at £85.4m a year during the current parliament, representing a real-terms cut in its budget of about £6m (or 7%) by 2019-20. 

With food crime a growing concern and the FSA involved in a major programme focused on campylobacter, these cuts raise serious questions about its future capabilities. So what’s the likely impact?

Budget cuts have been a regular occurrence for the FSA in recent years. In fact, the regulator has seen its government funding fall by more than £33m since Horsegate in 2013, and by about £46m since 2010.

The latest round of cuts mean the FSA now faces very challenging conditions, and that’s not all. The FSA does not work in isolation, and one senior food safety source stresses the full impact of government cuts goes far beyond the 7% cut to the FSA’s own budget. “It’s all very well the FSA ‘only’ losing 7% of its budget, but with Defra’s budget cut by 30% and local government under huge pressure and facing further cuts, the current model for consumer protection and ensuring the safety of food looks increasingly unsustainable.”

One possible victim of the FSA budget crunch is its much-vaunted National Food Crime Unit (FCU), set up in the wake of Horsegate. FSA COO Jason Feeney recently conceded the unit might never get full investigative powers.

It’s a prospect that alarms Professor Chris Elliott, who was among a number of industry heavyweights who wrote to the Chancellor last month warning of the dangers of further budget cuts to the FSA.

Not only would the FCU need a “substantial budget increase in order to become fully operational”, but the next round of cuts could also “reduce the FSA’s ability to react to major incidents” he warns.

Labour shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy has also warned of a reduced ability to protect consumers as a result of the budget cuts, slamming them as “false economy” this week.

The FSA itself says it is too early to say where savings will be made, but a spokesman says the FCU’s budget (currently about £2m a year) is not ring-fenced though “it remains a priority area of our work”.

Campylobacter survey

Away from food crime, greater industry involvement in funding projects could be one way for the regulator to mitigate the impact of its reduced budget. It has already started “tentative” discussions with the poultry industry over the future of its campylobacter survey, says British Poultry Council director of food policy Richard Griffiths.

The cost of the survey, at just under £514,000 for its first year, represents a “fair chunk” of budget, he says, adding retailers and processors may have to take a greater role in its funding, especially if the FSA were to widen its remit beyond supermarket-sold chicken.

Meat inspections are another likely target for savings. They account for a huge part of the FSA’s budget at the moment (see box), and Griffiths believes pressure could be eased by a wider rollout of plant inspection assistants (PIAs).

PIAs allow producers to use their own employees to undertake meat inspections under a vet’s authority and are “considerably more cost-effective than official inspectors”, costing £11-12 per hour compared with the cost of an official FSA inspector at £29.30 per hour, he says.

British Meat Processors Association director Stephen Rossides says new meat inspection funding models are already under consideration by the FSA, with the agency’s board agreeing in September to take the next step towards proposed changes to its official meat control charging structure.

The new structure, which would change the way the FSA recovers costs from food operators, was developed in “expectation of cuts to the FSA budget”, says Rossides. “The FSA is much more open to working with industry, and is prepared to look at new ways of doing things.”

Further savings could be made by reducing inspection discounts given to industry.

There could be legislative hurdles to clear at European level in terms of changing how the FSA is involved in meat inspections, “but there may be scope to do inspections in different ways”, with the FSA potentially delegating tasks to processors and instead concentrating on “approving, auditing and enforcing”, Rossides says.

Industry policing itself

But not everyone thinks it would be a good idea to hand responsibility for inspection back to industry. Trade union Unison, which represents meat inspectors in the UK, has long warned self-regulation would increase the threat to food safety and hasten the next Horsegate. “Any reduction in the regulatory framework in meat inspection concerns us,” says national officer Paul Bell.

“The risk of fraud is evident whenever an industry is allowed to police itself, and these FSA controls need to be independent. If we went down this road the industry would not be able to guarantee consumer confidence,” he adds.

No matter where the FSA ultimately cuts back, tough choices will have to be made. And questions about whether the government is putting a high enough value on food safety won’t go away any time soon.