Regulating The Future Of Food Safety
The Food Standards Agency has published its plans for the
future of food regulation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – plans which will radically change the way food safety and food standards are regulated.
The FSA has taken an open consultative approach to the development of these food safety plans, which reach to the point of Brexit and beyond. They have engaged with various stakeholders across the food industry, including STS, and are looking to ensure that a structured approach is developed rather than the current one size fits all model that is currently employed. It’s important to note that the report looks at the ways in which the FSA will deliver regulatory assurance rather than changing the actual regulations themselves.
The FSA has finally stated that the current model of food safety enforcement is unsustainable and must be changed. This has been rumoured for some time but perhaps the breadth of change and proposals within were not quite that expected and it is envisaged that some businesses may be alarmed at the potential impact that this may have on food safety.
Brexit is a key factor in many aspects of the food industry, many of which have been well documented. However, one of the less well publicised points is the fact that the UK will no longer be part of the European Food Safety Authority and, as such, all strategy will therefore be led by the FSA. Furthermore, the FSA has announced that the enforcement of food safety and food standards will now be brought together which will require structural change within the FSA as well as at local authority level.
The fact that businesses will be expected to pay for enforcement will no doubt grab headlines but, to be fair to the FSA, this is actually a government led change. It will potentially follow a similar path to that used by the HSE whereby businesses are not charged for routine food safety inspections but are for any follow up visits. However, the report does not go into detail as to the structure of the charges, merely stating that costs will be “no more than they need to be”. Watch this space!
One of the cornerstones for the FSA’s new approach is enhanced registration for new businesses. Potentially this could include cross industry co-operation e.g. inclusion of insurers and will ensure that start-up businesses are better informed as to what exactly they need to do with regards to food safety. There is no retrospective approach mentioned for existing businesses, nor is there much detail as to how the data will be captured, protected or kept away from freedom of information requests something that many multi-site operators will be interested in. Again, watch this space.
A key part of the plan is enhancing the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme particularly when it comes to requiring mandatory display in England, although this will probably be post-Brexit which will disappoint those calling for it to be introduced now. How the FHRS ratings are to be determined is also considered, with the potential introduction of private sector auditors having input into the ratings businesses achieve. This may well be contentious, and consultancies will be concerned that there could be a risk to their client relationships should businesses achieve low scores due to their intervention. How the Certified Regulatory Auditors would be regulated and assessed has not been laid out in the plan as yet, with the report identifying the role as “potential”. Again, there will be many interested spectators as this line of approach develops.
The FSA believes that by targeting poorer performing businesses and allowing those which perform better to have a reduced burden of regulation is a sound plan. How this will be perceived across the industry is a moot point at the moment. Many multi-site operators have Primary Authority (PA) agreements in place but many others do not. In essence, these are there to ratify company policies and procedures, work with the company to help improve standards, monitor other local authority action and, where necessary, agree courses of action with other environmental health/trading standards/fire departments. On the face of it, the PA principle is very good but the plan identifies that additional work will be needed to help develop inspection strategies. One negative is that PA agreements are often at cost to the operator and, as such, added pressure from the FSA for businesses to adopt a PA agreement will potentially be seen as an additional regulatory cost on top of those already being considered as part of this plan (there is a rather obvious contra argument to this, answers on a postcard please!).
Much of the plan makes very clear sense e.g. the first of the five principles states that “businesses are responsible for producing food that is safe and is what it says it is”. In reality, this should be cataclysmically obvious but the fact that many food business operators end up in court every year belies the obvious nature of this principle. Re-iterating this point on an ongoing basis is fundamental to achieving knowledge growth within the food industry. It’s also notable that the plan points out that the approach will “help keep food safety, authenticity and public health at the front of mind with the leaders of bigger more complex businesses” which feels like a gentle nod towards the sentencing guidelines and even the possibility of corporate manslaughter charges against business operators who fail to abide by the regulations.
This plan will undoubtedly raise a number of eyebrows, not just from food business operators but amongst the environmental health profession in general. It does not include the word privatisation but we can pretty confidently predict that this word will be raised in many conversations. Our interpretation is that the plan doesn’t feel like privatisation but rather the recognition that the private sector of the food safety industry has a key role to play in maintaining standards of food safety as we move towards, and beyond, Brexit.