Which? research has repeatedly shown that consumers have high expectations of food law enforcement. The horsemeat scandal reinforced how important food standards are for consumer confidence in the food they buy and how local authority Trading Standards checks on quality can easily be taken for granted until something goes wrong.
“An FSA-hosted Food Crime Unit would be a positive development”
It was, therefore, concerning that earlier this week the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) published a workforce survey suggesting that local authority Trading Standards staffing levels have dropped by 45% since 2009.
It’s a further worry that the Food Standards Agency’s local authority monitoring data for 2012/13 showed a 16.8% fall in food standards interventions and a 16.2% drop in testing for food labelling and presentation. TSI estimates that by 2016, most Trading Standards services in England and Wales will have been cut by an average of 40% since 2010.
While responsibility for making sure food is accurately and honestly labelled, as well as safe, falls to food businesses, consumers need to be able to rely on enforcement officers to make sure businesses understand their obligations and that more unscrupulous traders are likely to be caught and punished. The Elliott review’s interim findings highlighted the importance of a consumer-first, zero-tolerance approach to food crime.
A fundamental rethink is now needed to ensure a more effective system that makes the best use of the limited resources, while also ensuring enforcement officers have sufficient expertise and powers to deal with an ever-more complex food industry. Elliott’s recommendations on improved intelligence gathering and a more co-ordinated approach to tackling crime through an FSA-hosted Food Crime Unit would be very positive and welcome developments. More routine checks are also needed.
The FSA has a key role to play, working closely with other enforcement bodies, the Local Government Association and the new Scottish food agency (once it is set up) to take a more strategic approach to the allocation of resources and expertise.
Monday’s European Parliament debate on the EU official feed and food controls regulation also has an important part to play, ensuring there is a robust system in place across all member states, better sharing of information, greater transparency and tougher penalties. The regulation should also extend the possibility of charging inspection fees to a wider range of businesses, enabling them to be structured in a way that incentivises compliance and ensures a more sustainable funding model without compromising on independence.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?