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homeThursday 23rd November 2017

Many councils ‘struggling to carry out food safety checks’

Tom Wall20/01/2016 - 13:41

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Food checks are below required levels
Food checks are below required levels

The Food Standards Agency has expressed growing concern at the number of councils falling below the legally required level of food safety inspections.

A report to be discussed at the agency’s board meeting next week warns many local authorities are not able to deliver a food service as set out in the statutory food law code of practice.

‘The overall position is one of growing concern. At a local level there are a good number of authorities which are struggling to undertake interventions of food businesses at the required frequencies,’ it says.

The agency blames increasing demands on food safety services and staffing cuts for the problem.

The latest enforcement data covering 2014/15, which has been analysed by EHN (see the interactive infographic below), reveals seven councils are carrying out fewer than 80 per cent of the of required interventions for the highest risk A-rated food businesses, such as poorly managed takeaways.

The London Borough of Brent only carried out 62 per cent and Swale Borough Council in Kent only carried out 67 per cent of the required interventions on A-rated businesses in 2014/15.

Five councils are carrying out fewer than 80 per cent of the required interventions of the second highest risk B-rated food businesses.

Great Yamouth only managed 66 per cent and Brent only managed 50 per cent.

Thirty-one councils failed to reach 80 per cent of the required interventions for C-rated firms and 166 councils failed to reach 80 per cent of required interventions for D and E rated firms.

The FSA says the intervention frequencies set out in the food law code of practice ‘were established to help ensure public health protection’.

‘Whilst failure to carry out planned interventions of higher risk premises is of most concern, interventions of lower risk establishments are also important to confirm that their risk status has not changed,’ the board paper notes.

It says the number of food businesses and customer complaints have continued to rise, while local authority staff, intervention and sampling levels have continued to fall.

 ‘These trends, along with more detailed knowledge we have from our liaison with and audits of local authorities, highlight that many are not able to deliver a food service as set out in statutory food law code of practice,’ it says.

The agency fears worst is to come where local authorities, especially in England, will ‘face further significant reductions’ over the next few years.

David Thrale, Brent Council's head of regulatory services, told EHN that councils could not maintain service levels as their funding fell.

‘London and other urban authorities have been hit disproportionately hard by the government’s spending cuts. Whilst government funding of councils has been cut by about half, the FSA still expects councils to somehow maintain similar with half the funding,’ he said.

‘At the same time, only six councils have experienced greater population growth than Brent in recent years and the churn of local food businesses is significant too.’

Mr Thrale said the authority had improved its performance since 2014/15, the period the FSA figures cover.

‘Although our core team is no longer big enough to meet the FSA’s ongoing expectations, we have used funds from vacancies elsewhere in environmental health to purchase additional externally contracted inspections and we now have no high risk food businesses overdue for inspection, and by the end of the 2015/16 municipal year, we expect to have completely caught up with all medium and low risk inspections too.’

He added his team would be expanding.

‘We have plans to increase the size of the food safety team to get closer to the FSA’s expectations, but without funding this can only be achieved by taking resources from other, already hard-pressed, areas of environmental health,’ he said.

Swale council told EHN that it was in the process of sharing services with two other authorities when the statistics were collated.

‘In 2014/15 we were in the early transition stage of a new shared service arrangement with two neighbouring authorities, which has since transformed and improved our approach to food hygiene by offering greater resilience and resources for the team,’ said a spokesperson.

It added that the figures for A-rated premises in Swale related to only a handful of premises – so the percentage figure can be skewed by only one of two cases.

Great Yarmouth Borough Council said the figures for 2014/15 were in no way comparable to those of other authorities.

'This is because the council follows a systems thinking approach to food safety inspections, which focuses inspections on new businesses and others most in need of help, with the end goal of raising food safety standards and ensuring all food is safe to eat, rather than of inspecting all businesses in a given period,' it said in a statement.

Jenny Morris, CIEH principal policy officer, said there was a ‘clear safety risk’ as some council were not carrying out all their high-risk business checks.

‘We also know that food businesses can change their level of risk very quickly. For instance, if a new owner decides to offer a more interesting menu – rare burgers are a classic example of this,’ she said. 

‘If the business does not tell the local authority about change, and many don’t, checks that there are safe systems in place cannot be made. So even if a business was lower risk at the last visit it is essential to check that it remains so.’

She added standards might go down if checks were not carried out and that the profession needed to consider how high standards of consumer protection can be maintained.

‘We can demand the government provides more funds but we know what the answer will be. So we have to collaborate across boundaries and identify new ways of working to ensure UK food safety standards remain high. This is likely to require a more complex approach than currently which will need to identify roles, responsibilities, checks, balances, incentives and consequences,’ she said.

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