Food safety in crisis

Food Public Health

The coalition cuts to public services are having a significant impact on food safety and food standards enforcement in the UK and as past history shows when food safety enforcement is reduced then food scares increase.

The Food Standards Agency was established as a flagship project by the Blair Government in 2000. It was established as a non-ministerial Government Department answering to an independent board, an example of open and transparent government.

The Agency was responsible for all aspects of food control including food standards, labelling and nutrition. It was made up of food control areas which had previously been part of DEFRA or the Department of Health.

By any standards the Food Standards Agency was an outstanding success, food borne disease was reduced, and standards of food businesses were improved, partly due to the support given to Local Authority enforcement.

The coalition government when it came to power significantly reduced the size and budget of the FSA. It took away its responsibility for nutrition, returning this to the Department of Health and Food Standards including food authenticity was returned to DEFRA, despite the department’s failures in that area, being one of the reasons for the establishment of the FSA in the first place.

It is almost certainly not coincidence that the first major food problem to follow those changes was the horse meat scandal, which would have almost certainly been handled better by the FSA than DEFRA.

The FSA has seen a reduction in staff from the establishment figure in 2000 of around 3000 (including the Meat Hygiene Service) to the current level of 1,400 which also includes the MHS although it is now part of the Agency.

In addition to staff cuts, one of the first service budgets to be removed by the coalition was the communications budget. The Agency was established with a budget to carry out media campaigns to help reinforce important hygiene messages. These campaigns were extremely effective and some won awards. The budget was a modest £1m but this was chopped completely as part of the coalition’s cuts.

Turning to the local authority end of the story, local authorities carry out food safety and food standards enforcement in the majority of food businesses. This work is done principally by Environmental Health Practitioners and Trading Standards Officers.

Since 2011/12 we have seen a reduction in officers in post of almost 10% (9.63) this has led to a reduction in enforcement activity which will inevitably lead to reduced protection for the public.

In many cases local authorities are resorting to employing consultants to carry out inspections, but these inspections are usually not followed up and rarely result in any enforcement action, they are simply a stop gap until proper enforcement can be undertaken.

This follows the pattern of what happened under the Thatcher Government, with reduced enforcement being the Government line, leading to the Salmonella crisis and BSE.

If local authority cuts of this level continue then similar crises can’t be ruled out

David Statham

Retired Director FSA