Rising food problems and increasing new registrations are hampering local authorities’ efforts to return to the presentation of pre-pandemic food inspections.
A report at last week’s meeting of the Food Standards Agency’s business committee updated how councils manage as part of a plan agreed in May 2021. This document covers July 2021 to March 2023 with guidelines and advice for local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on official food controls.
By the end of March 2022, all category A hygiene facilities must be visited on site. A-rated premises include companies with a history of hygiene or compliance issues; those who supply vulnerable groups; companies with many clients; and those who work with raw meat or are involved in processes with a high risk of contamination.
The deadline for hygienic inspections of the Category B site and control of standards in Category A establishments is June 30, 2022.
The latest data, which cover from April 2021 to March 31, 2022, show that local authorities carried out 96 percent of food hygiene visits in the most risky places, 80 percent of food hygiene interventions in category facilities. B and 75 per cent of the food standards visits to Category A outlets.
More problems and more sites to visit have been found
However, authorities have noted a decline in compliance with inspections. This means that they need to take more formal action than before the pandemic and carry out re-inspections, which is time consuming. The situation is due to factors, including staff shortages, financial pressure from the pandemic and failure to undertake planned inspections by local authorities.
Of particular concern are cleaning, pest control, food safety management and food substitution issues related to allergens.
The number of newly registered establishments awaiting the first inspection is 48,996 for food hygiene and 86,581 for food standards. This is higher than the figure at the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, which was 30,968 and 73,214, respectively.
Concerns have been expressed about the volume of new business registrations, as there is an unknown risk associated with them. Of the newly registered establishments identified as high-risk, 8,917 and 3,702 are still awaiting an inspection of food hygiene and food standards.
About 51,300 enterprises were valued from January to March 2022, the highest number for a quarter from Q4 of 2019/20. The number of companies awaiting inspection has decreased by 7.9 percent to 51,600. This is the lowest level since January 2021.
The largest number of them – 27 percent – are categorized as “Other catering establishments”, which includes home catering establishments. Over 80 percent of the upcoming inspections in this category are registered at a private home address. Nearly 14,000 new businesses were added during the quarter and more than 7,300 were closed.
Local authorities are also concerned about meeting the targets for food hygiene intervention and standards by March 31, 2023. A large number of lower-end establishments will require food hygiene inspections, and sites in the two largest risk categories will need to be reviewed again.
Another problem is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining suitably qualified staff with reported budget cuts and the freezing of hiring.
The FSA board also discussed a program aimed at reducing the number of civil servants to 2016 levels by three years. No goals have yet been set to reduce the number of FSA staff, but the agency has been asked to model scenarios with significantly fewer people.
FSA President Susan Jeb said she was seriously concerned about the impact the decline in staffing could have on the agency’s ability to deliver safe food to people in the UK.
“Our departure from the EU has brought a huge amount of extra work for the FSA, which is not disappearing. And if we want to take advantage of the opportunity to leave the EU, we need resources to do more, not less, “she said.
A pilot project was conducted in April to test the use of new remote assessment techniques to perform audit activities, including the verification of key records. Another six trials are scheduled with local authorities between May and July.
With regard to food crime, Operation Blackthorne began in March 2022 after intelligence was obtained to replace the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Assured Scottish Smoked Salmon with a lower quality product from Poland.
In 2020, there has been a significant reduction in the reporting of gastrointestinal infections to national surveillance, coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the incidence of Campylobacter in the United Kingdom returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, but E. coli O157, which produces Salmonella and Shiga toxin, remained lower for reasons that are not yet clear. A study on intestinal infectious diseases during COVID-19 is expected to be published in late 2022.
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