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Food safety at risk from lack of inspectors

The UK’s ability to carry out critical food safety and standards checks in food businesses risks being undermined by a shortage of key workers, according to regulators.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) said that unless gaps were plugged in key occupations needed to keep food safe, such as vets and food inspectors, it would be more difficult to identify, monitor and respond to risks to food safety, leaving consumers and businesses vulnerable.

They called for ministers to step in and address the decline in local authority trading standards, environmental health and food law officers and tackle the shortage of official veterinarians who ensure that food hygiene standards are maintained in meat production.

They also urged the government to introduce much-delayed border controls on food imported from the EU to help reduce the risk of unsafe food entering the UK from the continent.

In their joint annual report, the FSA and FSS reported that food standards overall remained stable in 2022, despite pressures including inflation, labour shortages and the war in Ukraine. However, they said that without specific action to boost the workforce it will not be possible to maintain these high standards in the future.

“Failure to recruit and train professionals to key posts can have reverberations for many years to come,” said FSA chair Susan Jebb. “We ask governments across the UK, and others, to work with us to address these matters in the coming year so that people in the UK can continue to have food they can trust, and the strong reputation of British food abroad is maintained.”

Data in the report showed a 14% decline in food hygiene posts in local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last decade, with over 13% of available posts currently vacant. In Scotland, the number of food law officers undertaking both food hygiene and food standards work has fallen by just over a quarter (25.5%) compared to 2016/17.

The number of UK food standards officers has fallen by 45% compared to 10 years ago. Meanwhile the UK veterinary profession has experienced a 27% decline in people joining it between 2019 and 2022, creating significant challenges in securing the vets needed to verify that animal health and welfare standards are being met.

“It is now more important than ever for those who govern the system, as well as everyone involved in food production, retail and distribution, to work together to ensure food is safe and consumers and trade are protected,” said Heather Kelman, chair of Food Standards Scotland.

Just over three-quarters (75.7%) of food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieved a top rating of five for hygiene in 2022, while 2.9% of businesses achieved a rating of two or below meaning they require improvement, major improvement, or urgent improvement.

In June, the FSA revealed a new model for delivering food standards controls in England and Northern Ireland, designed to help local authorities take a more risk-based and intelligence-driven approach to inspection.

Under the new regime non-compliant businesses will face more frequent physical checks than businesses that can demonstrate good levels of sustained compliance, allowing enforcement officers to focus their time and resources on food businesses that pose the greatest risk to consumers.