UK local authorities still face uncertainty as COVID pandemic continues

UK local authorities still face uncertainty as COVID pandemic continues

by Sue Jones
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There are signs that local authorities are getting back on track with food work amid the pandemic but there is still large uncertainty, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

A report at the FSA’s business committee meeting this past week gave an update on how authorities are managing COVID-19 tasks with food inspections as part of a plan agreed to in May.

The plan, which covers July 2021 to March 2023, contains guidance and advice for local authorities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland on conducting official food controls.

In March 2021, there was a decline in the percentage of planned interventions. For food hygiene this dropped from 85.7 percent to 27 percent and there was a drop from 39.7 percent to 19 percent for food standards. The percentage of unrated establishments awaiting a first inspection for food hygiene increased from 5.5 percent to 12.7 percent across the three countries. A total of 54 percent of the resources for food hygiene and 43 percent for food standards were redeployed to other tasks.

Data from October shows resources are returning. For food hygiene teams, levels were back up to 81 percent in England, 64 percent in Wales, and 76 percent in Northern Ireland and for food standards, figures were slightly higher for each country.

However, 20,820 new businesses were still awaiting inspections for food hygiene and 23,215 for food standards.

Inspections taking longer as standards slip
In June 2020, 461 establishments received a Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) score. In September 2021, 13,599 sites got a new hygiene rating, compared to the pre-pandemic monthly average of 16,687 in 2019-2020 across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Local authorities are reporting cases where standards in businesses have dropped and formal enforcement is required to ensure they are brought into compliance. The time required to do a food hygiene inspection has also increased because of falling standards. Checking compliance with the new requirement to display full ingredient and allergen labeling information on food that is pre-packed for direct sale is also adding to inspection times.

More than 40 responses for food hygiene and 27 for food standards reported the local authority had been unable to meet all expectations in the first phase of the plan. Many pointed to issues with sampling because of a lack of resources.

The next milestone is in March 2022. For food hygiene, 28 councils indicated they see issues with delivering all due Category A food hygiene interventions. Other expectations for food hygiene and food standards in the plan were also identified as a problem.

A new model for food standards is on target for implementation in 2023-2024 and a revised approach to collect, analyze and report data on official food and feed controls is planned for April 2023.

Uncomfortable inspection delays
Speaking at a recent Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) conference, Emily Miles, FSA chief executive, said it was right that COVID-19 had been a priority for local authorities but food inspections can’t be delayed indefinitely.

“The FSA’s own internal research has linked higher FHRS ratings to lower levels of microbes found in food businesses, ultimately lowering the risk to consumers of foodborne illness when eating food from higher rated premises. Many inspections and ratings have been delayed, and this makes the FSA feel uncomfortable on behalf of consumers,” she said.

Miles also spoke about opportunities, challenges and emerging risks.

“Like raw drinking milk, or (eating) rare burgers, will some types of novel food need extra attention from food handlers to make sure it is safe? Or will we need to put additional information on labels to discourage vulnerable consumers from eating it?” she said.

“A greater choice of food online presents the risk of a lawless marketplace with platforms hosting dubious sellers refusing to take their responsibilities seriously. It’s not always very easy for a local authority environmental health officer to get an audience with a global multinational social media company about a product or a seller that’s on their platform.”

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