Meat hanging in abattoir

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Emily Miles suggested a fall in the number of local authority officials was affecting the integrity of supply chains

The Food Standards Agency is “really worried” about local authority environmental health and food hygiene resourcing, with a “serious issue around the resourcing of these functions”, its CEO has warned.

Speaking to the The Grocer this week in response to mounting concerns over the recent “industrial-scale” meat fraud scandal uncovered by Farmers Weekly, Emily Miles said the regulator was “concerned” at the falls in the number of inspectors seen over the past decade.

Her comments come after the farming title exposed significant examples of food fraud and food safety breaches at an unnamed meat processor – prompting criticism from within the meat sector over how the FSA and its National Food Crime Unit had handled the case, and particularly its perceived failure to keep the sector informed of the investigation.

Miles stressed the first responsibility of ensuring food safety sat with individual businesses, before adding the FSA had acted at every point of the investigation, in a robust defence of the regulator’s methods.

But she also suggested a fall in the number of local authority officials – who had the legal responsibility of enforcing the type of approved premises implicated in the investigation – was affecting the integrity of supply chains, with the FSA ultimately moving to intervene in the case after previously refering it to local authority inspectors.

“Did the FSA act? Yes, we did at every single stage,” said Miles. “As soon as we got intelligence of food fraud, we asked the local authority to investigate, we prompted them again to investigate, [before] we eventually (in August 2021) decided we would investigate – and we immediately went in with a warrant to seize documents.” 

She pointed to how there were now just 345 Trading Standards officers nationally, with numbers falling for more than a decade, while there were only an estimated 1,370 local authority food hygiene officers. This compared with at least 610,000 food businesses across the country.

Read more: Is the Food Standards Agency and its National Food Crime Unit fit for purpose?

“There is a narrative around [local authority] food controls being red tape and overly bureaucratic, but they are there to protect the public, and this function needs to be properly resourced,” she insisted.

“It’s not just about money, it’s also about [sufficient numbers] of trained officers,” Miles added, pointing to how she had raised the issue of funding on numerous occasions with government and regularly at FSA board meetings.

“Food you can trust is a very precious thing and when that is lost it costs the food industry dearly,” she warned.

Her concerns were echoed by Professor Chris Elliott, of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, who led the government’s response to the Horsegate scandal a decade ago and recommended the creation of the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit.

In an interview with The Grocer this week, Elliott said the government “has to put its hand up” and address the issue of local authority funding. “How important is this? We’ve got to protect people,” he urged.

Elliott also suggested the scandal had uncovered the inadequacy of industry auditing. “The auditing business is an industry in itself. And here we have a failure of audits. [The business] was audited quite a number of times,” he added, without any major issues being uncovered.