Food agencies in the United Kingdom have raised resource concerns in a report on food standards.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) published a report reviewing food standards across the UK. It looked at whether they have improved, declined or stayed the same in 2022 and is the second such analysis since the UK left the European Union.
Food standards were judged to have remained stable in 2022, despite pressures including inflation, labor shortages and the war in Ukraine. However, there are gaps in roles needed to keep food safe, such as vets and food inspectors. Without enough people with the right skills to do controls, it will be more difficult to identify, monitor and respond to food safety risks, leaving consumers and businesses vulnerable, said FSA and FSS.
During 2022, FSA and FSS advised ministers to add five product types to the existing list of High-Risk Food Not of Animal Origin (HRFNAO) and to increase checks on 13 more. Three products were removed from the list and controls reduced on five items.
Intensified official controls were applied on 11 occasions including five times for poultry plants in Brazil due to Salmonella. Ongoing issues with Salmonella Enteritidis in Polish chicken resulted in more surveillance and sampling of these products.
Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the FSA, said food safety and standards hinge on good procedures and skilled people to ensure that the right checks are carried out.
“It takes time to recruit and develop these skills and we worry that without specific action to boost the workforce, specifically to recruit more official veterinarians and local authority inspectors, 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,” she said.
Historic inspection data does not point to a reduction in compliance by companies with food hygiene standards. There were 39,500 unrated businesses at the end of 2022 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There has also been a decline in sampling by local authorities in recent years, making it more difficult to detect potential safety and authenticity issues.
FSA analysis shows a 14 percent decline in food hygiene posts in local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the past decade, with over 13 percent of available posts vacant. In Scotland, the number of food law officers, who do food hygiene and standards work, has fallen by a quarter compared to 2016. The amount of UK food standards officers has dropped by 45 percent compared to 10 years ago, with many also nearing retirement. FSA and FSS said such issues may increase the risk of food safety issues being missed.
The UK veterinary profession has seen a 27 percent decline in people joining the sector between 2019 and 2022, creating problems in ensuring there are enough Official Veterinarians (OVs). A lack of OVs poses risks to animal health and welfare, potential disruption to domestic food supply and the ability to export products of animal origin.
Heather Kelman, chair of FSS, said it was important to recognize the challenges ahead and the potential problems that a lack of resourcing within environmental health officer and OV roles, may cause to the food system.
“It is critical that, together, we do everything we can to ensure we have a modernised system of assurance to support businesses that provide safe food for everyone and that the UK’s high food standards are maintained, in spite of the cost and workforce pressures we continue to face,” she said.
Outbreaks and food crime
Analysis of reported incidents and foodborne outbreaks, the results of national sampling programs and intelligence on food crime do not suggest any significant change in food safety and authenticity standards during 2022, said FSA and FSS.
Between January and December 2022, 40 outbreaks were investigated. Eleven were due to Salmonella, eight for Clostridium perfringens, five for Listeria and three each for STEC O157 and non-STEC O157.
The rate of most foodborne diseases reverted to pre-pandemic levels during 2022. However, cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O157 reached their highest level since 2015, largely due to a major outbreak in summer 2022. Cases of Salmonella increased but remain below pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes infections are comparable with pre-pandemic figures.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) focused on tackling threats in the red meat sector, the diversion of animal by-products into the food chain, and online sale of items such as the illegal diet drug 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP).
The Scottish Food Crime and Incident Unit’s (SFCIU) investigations included suspected fraud in relation to counterfeit alcohol as well as traceability and adulteration in the meat supply chain and illegal slaughter. It also tackled fraud involving Scottish-grown tea, confectionery and honey.
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