Tesco supermouse

‘Supermouse’ was spotted at Tesco’s Covent Garden store

Crippling cutbacks to food hygiene budgets are putting the public at risk, the FSA has been told, as it finalises plans for a massive reduction in the number of inspections faced by the big supermarkets.

In the week Tesco received a £45,000 fine following a string of food hygiene breaches at its flagship Covent Garden Metro store last year, leading environmental health experts warned agency inspections are “grinding to a halt”.

The FSA is conducting a root and branch review of its food law code, with the deadline for consultations closing last week. Under its proposals, cash-strapped authorities would be able to save resources by concentrating their fire on smaller, “higher-risk” businesses.

But some experts have claimed it will allow more incidents to go undetected. The Grocer revealed in January last year the FSA’s then-CEO Tim Smith, now group technical director at Tesco, planned a light-touch system of regulation, which he admitted would see the number of inspections fall by up to 70%. The FSA’s latest forecast is that this would lead to a 4.7% reduction in the number of interventions, on top of a 6% fall in the number of staff involved in enforcement from 2010 to 2012.

“In the retail sector, one of the main problems is pest control. These are operators who have a lot of premises with big car parks, large amounts of food, and landscaping, which can attract pests”

Jenny Morris

“The financial cutbacks are having a huge impact on local authorities and in some areas they are just about holding on,” said Jenny Morris, principal policy officer at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. “The indications are this is just going to get worse. retailers, especially the big ones, are going to see far fewer inspections.”

Although Morris said she understood the FSA’s desire to concentrate on higher-risk areas, she warned the move to relax controls on big retailers could backfire.

“In the retail sector, one of the main problems is pest control. These are operators who have a lot of premises with big car parks, large amounts of food, and landscaping, which can attract pests. If you take away the number of inspections they face at local level, then you become reactive and not proactive to this sort of problem.”

One of the FSA’s other main strategies has been to drive up the use of the Food Hygiene Ratings Scheme, known as Scores on the Doors. Ninety-eight per cent of local authorities in the UK now take part. “We are working with local authorities to help them target resources more effectively,” said John Barnes, head of the local authority audit and liaison division at the FSA. “This is helping to improve compliance levels and target local authority resources.”

But in some areas only “crucial” cases are being investigated. In a report last month, Torbay Council said its ability to meet even basic requirements of food safety was under “significant strain” and that of 138 “high-risk” businesses, 124 were “awaiting inspection”.

Helga Pile, a national officer for Unison, added: “We are very worried that council cuts mean the food we buy in shops, cafés and restaurants is becoming less safe with major risks for our health and wellbeing.”

Supermouse: isolated incident, says Tesco

The Covent Garden ‘supermouse’ infestation was caused by local management failure, rather than cost cuts or staff shortages, Tesco said after being fined £56,822 this week for a string of food hygiene breaches.

Paul Sharkey of Westminster Council said a door in the store was poorly fitted, allowing mice to enter. With mice scuttling from crates of out-of-date food, one oversized rodent was seen eating a packet of raw chicken, routine cleaning was poor, bins overflowing, and the basement kitchen floor filthy. But even though pest controllers Rentokil made the store manager aware of problems she went away for the weekend and nothing was done about it.

At Southwark Crown Court, Judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith said he had “no doubt” Tesco had not followed waste management procedures and said that some food was “very out of date”.

Mark Watson for Tesco said in mitigation that it gave an unreserved apology at the first available opportunity, “took urgent action to deal with this isolated incident and voluntarily kept the store closed while we carried out a complete refit.” The store manager has moved to another branch.