Food safety comes under the microscope as checks decline

A new report from the National Audit Office has outlined the risks in the food system from lack of funding, climate change, Brexit and the importation of food from outside the EU.

12 June 2019
image credit: Getty Images

Food safety in the UK could be jeopardised with “catastrophic consequences for human life” due to a lack of government funding and safety checks, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed.

But other challenges are also placing pressure on food safety as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) battles emerging risks such as climate change, population growth, crop disease, food fraud and possibly importing more food from non-EU countries.

Around 1m people in the UK suffer an illness from food each year, potentially costing £1bn. Yet managing food safety is challenging because of the highly complex food supply system, said the report, which involves food producers, processors, retailers and caterers of varying sizes.

The thing is monitoring food safety is a costly exercise. In the 2016-17 period, an estimated £164m was spent on the issue in England, with 73% of costs being met by local authorities and port health authorities – organisations that have suffered severe funding cuts from the UK government.

Alarmingly, spending on food hygiene by local authorities fell by an estimated 19% between 2012-13 and 2017-18 because of funding pressures, NAO figures show. Food hygiene staff numbers declined by an estimated 13% relative to the number of food businesses in operation over this period, while food standards staff reduced by 45%.

As a result, some councils are failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with the law, said the report. Less than half the food standards checks to ensure the correct food was being sold took place between 2012-13 and 2017-18, with only 37% carried out in 2017-18.

“The regulatory system is showing signs of strain with fewer food control staff in local authorities and delays in the checks they carry out on food businesses,” said Gareth Davies, the new head of the NAO. “This is at a time when the regulatory system faces increased challenges, particularly as we move towards new trading relationships after the UK leaves the EU.”

But Alex Wilkins, head of business development at workplace training outfit iHASCO, said while local authorities struggle to uphold their part of the processes, businesses need to step up to ensure that consumers’ health and wellbeing is not being put at risk.

“At any given time, all employees should have undertaken the appropriate training to keep food safe and hygienic. This training is not optional, but rather a legal requirement for anybody who regularly handles food,” he said. “There is no excuse for handling or preparing food in an unsafe manner, and there’s even less of an excuse to serve this food to customers. Although time constraints and poor training are often used as reasons for poor service, this cannot be continued in any kind of hospitality or culinary establishment.”

Do food hygiene ratings need to go mandatory?

The NAO report singled out the FSA as needing to do more. Currently, the government agency assesses whether food is correctly described based on consumer confidence, rather than on objective evidence of food authenticity and this needs to be improved.

The public also needs better information to make informed choices about what food to buy or what services to use, found the report. Food hygiene ratings for businesses are published online, but in England only 52% of businesses display their ratings on the premises, compared to 87% in Wales and 84% in Northern Ireland, where it is mandatory to show them in store.

Despite being a hot topic at the moment – the public also remains unclear on what information food businesses should provide about whether food contains allergens, added the NAO.

Looming Brexit woes

Brexit preparations also came under scrutiny from the NOA because 90% of UK food legislation is taken from EU regulations. Additionally, around half of the food consumed in the UK is produced in the EU and other countries, often through complex global supply systems. The FSA spent £6.2m of its budget on EU exit preparations across 2017/18 and 2018/19 and received £15m of additional EU exit funding.

While the FSA has addressed ways to deal with food incidents if the UK loses access to EU systems, there are outstanding issues that may not be resolved quickly due to parliamentary delays, the report said. The NAO said the FSA must bring in new laws on imported products after leaving the EU.

“We will work very closely with other parts of government to determine the level of government funding required to ensure food safety and standards and post-EU exit will evaluate with other government departments the medium- and longer-term impacts on the food regulation system,” said the FSA’s chief executive, Jason Feeney.


Food safety facts

  • 516,000 is the approximate number of food businesses in England in 2017-18
  • 90% of food businesses achieved ‘broad compliance’ or better with hygiene requirements in 2017-18
  • 37% is the proportion of food standards interventions undertaken by local authorities in 2017-18 compared with 43% in 2012-13
  • 50% is the proportion of all food consumed in the UK that is produced outside the UK 

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