Rise in home-based businesses creates new safety worries amid pandemic

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A non-profit group has added its voice to a chorus of growing safety concerns about the rise in businesses operating out of people’s homes.

The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation said urgent government intervention on food safety standards is required to deal with the subject that has gained increased attention during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Foundation was set up by the parents of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died in 2016 after an allergic reaction to sesame in a baguette. It has been instrumental in new labeling legislation, called Natasha’s Law, that will come into force in the UK beginning in October.

The issue of homemade food being sold on social media was covered a few years ago by trade magazine “The Grocer” and the Foundation said it had raised the topic with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) following a BBC investigation in 2020 and again recently with the BBC highlighting it this month. Both times the FSA said it was “concerning.”

Good work being reversed
Figures from the FSA and an online registration system used by nearly 200 local authorities, shows 44 percent of food businesses started since the first pandemic lockdown are home-based.

Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, founder of Natasha’s Foundation, said the emergence of tens of thousands of at-home and dark kitchens during the COVID-19 pandemic raises fears about food safety, particularly for the two million plus people in the UK who have food allergies.

“We are deeply concerned that much of the good work on allergen safety over the last few years is being shunted into reverse by the growth of poorly, if, at all, regulated businesses. Many new food kitchens are failing to register with local authorities,” she said.

“Others, even if they are registered, don’t receive physical hygiene inspections as corners cut means virtual visits on video. All the while, environmental health inspectors who are supposed to be at the forefront of the battle against poor food hygiene standards are woefully low in numbers and resources.

“But we need ministerial intervention, laws to ensure businesses are regulated, inspected and rated, and an urgent commitment to boost resources targeted at food safety. The cost of failure for many families will be too high.”

Could be making people ill
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) said firms are often selling through social media and other informal networks and apps. Many are not registering as food businesses so local authorities cannot check their hygiene and food standards.

The pandemic has already put local authority and environmental health teams under strain with resources close to the breaking point, according to the membership body for the environmental health sector.

An FSA meeting late this past year heard high risk businesses could miss one of their inspections so local authorities could catch up backlogs stemming from the pandemic.

Julie Barratt, CIEH president, said just because people may not be reporting food-related illnesses to their general practitioners because of the pandemic does not mean they aren’t happening.

“COVID isn’t the only thing that kills people, so do food poisoning and so do allergens. Many of these new food businesses are small producers with limited reach. They won’t cause big outbreaks of food poisoning, but there is every chance that they are making people ill. It’s not just about catering, it’s about how food is packed, labelled, and transported. It is considering the whole of the food chain. Adding uninspected food outlets to this network poses real risks,” she said.

Barratt said there is a need to work with these food producers, especially small ones, so they get it right first time.

“The best way for that to happen is if new businesses register with their local authorities and talk to their environmental health teams before opening. That way they can open with confidence and peace of mind that they are supporting their local communities, not harming them,” she said.

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