The Food Standards Agency has been forced to scrap major elements of a programme to modernise local authority food safety and hygiene inspections, after warnings from cash-strapped local authorities and industry bosses.
Councils said they feared the plans, aimed at allowing local authorities to make more efficient use of dwindling resources, could instead result in more red tape and a fall in standards.
The proposed shake-up was also described as a threat to consumer confidence in the “scores on the doors” Food Hygiene Rating System, documents reveal.
The agency has also admitted plans to use industry-run assurance schemes, such as those used by major food retailers, to free council enforcement staff to concentrate on policing “more risky” food businesses had received a “mixed response” from the industry.
However, the agency is still going ahead with a nationwide rollout of food safety laws. From early next year local authorities will switch to a new system based on a similar rationale to the changes it has dropped.
Billed by the FSA as the biggest shake-up of food safety controls in 30 years, the plans “fundamentally change the way local authorities consider the levels of risk and compliance associated with food businesses”, it said. This would lead to less frequent controls for those businesses seen as “less risky”.
The scheme has been piloted in England and Northern Ireland and will be rolled out across all 167 authorities who deliver food standards controls by March 2025.
Elements of the FSA’s shake-up that won’t go ahead include plans for a modernised food hygiene intervention rating scheme, which planned to use a new “decision matrix approach” to determine the appropriate frequency of controls based on the risk posed by a food business.
The FSA said the proposals had received “mixed feedback” from local authorities. Some warned that “less risk” businesses could see long gaps between inspections, which would lead to a decline in standards, as well as reduce consumer confidence in the FHRS.
The agency said it had also dropped elements that would have required piloting or significant investment in training and IT by local authorities.
Yet it will go ahead with other parts of its proposals, including extending the role of regulatory support officers who do not currently qualify to carry out food hygiene works.
The FSA said it would also give “greater flexibility” for local authorities to use tools such as remote assessments for lowest risk premises.
A consultation on the changes will be held next autumn, with the body saying the change to the plans would allow it to “progress with substantive elements of the proposed developments… in a more efficient and effective way than originally proposed”.
The FSA’s shift towards concentrating local authority resources on food operators perceived as having a higher risk, has long been underway at the FSA. In 2017, The Grocer revealed its Regulating our Future programme was set to see some food and drink companies effectively regulate themselves, with no local authority inspections.
It was dropped following a massive backlash from health campaigners and food safety experts but under the FSA’s Achieving Business Compliance (ABC) programme, the agency has been returning to similar ground.
Since March it has carried out extensive conversations with regulators and third-party assurance operators, across primary production, manufacturing, wholesale, retail and catering.
However, The FSA told The Grocer the consultation had indicated there was “mixed opinion” on whether it should press ahead with plans to extend the use of industry data or third-party assurance schemes.
A report to the FSA’s board next week, which will discuss the latest state of the plans, admits the agency “does not have the resources” to carry out such ambitious reforms. It admits these would need an extensive period of consultation and “would require legislation to implement fully”.
The meeting comes at a challenging time for the UK’s food safety body, which last month warned food safety was being put at “critical” risk by shortages of frontline enforcement staff.
Carmel Lynskey, head of the FSA’s ABC programme, said: “The food industry has come a long way from when the food safety act was passed three decades ago and although regulation has continued to evolve, it has not kept pace with these significant changes.
“We are also acutely aware of the resourcing pressures local authorities are under and this, coupled with a growing number of food businesses to regulate, is why it’s more important than ever to we develop new ways to maintain effective regulatory oversight to ensure we maintain consumer confidence in the food they eat.”