Councils find more problems during business inspections

Increased problems at food outlets and an increase in new registrations are hampering efforts by local authorities to return to the pre-pandemic performance of food inspections.

A report at the Food Standards Agency Working Committee meeting last week provided an update on how councils will be run as part of a plan approved in May 2021. This document covers July 2021 to March 2023 with guidance and advice to local authorities in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland on formal controls on food.

By the end of March 2022, all Class A hygiene establishments should receive a field visit. A-rated buildings include businesses with a history of hygiene or compliance issues; those who extend the vulnerable; companies with many clients; and those who handle raw meat or are involved in operations that carry a high risk of contamination.

The schedule for Class B site health checks and standards controls at Class A establishments is June 30, 2022.

The most recent data, covering the period from April 2021 to March 31, 2022, shows that local authorities conducted 96 percent of food hygiene visits at the most risky sites, 80 percent of food hygiene interventions at Category B sites and 75 percent of food standards. Visits at Class A outlets.

More issues found and more sites to visit

However, authorities have seen a drop in compliance when conducting inspections. This means they have to take more formal enforcement action than they did before the pandemic and carry out re-inspections, which takes a long time. This situation is due to factors including staff shortages at food outlets, financial pressures as a result of the pandemic and the lack of planned inspections by local authorities.

Special areas of interest are cleaning, pest control, food safety management and food replacement issues related to allergens.

The number of newly registered establishments awaiting the first inspection reached 48,996 establishments for food hygiene and 86,581 for food standards. This is higher than the figure recorded at the start of the epidemic in April 2020, which was 30,968 and 73,214, respectively.

Concerns have been raised about the volume of new business registrations due to the unknown risks associated with them. Among the newly registered enterprises identified as high risk, 8917 and 3702 enterprises are still awaiting food hygiene and food standards inspection.

About 51,300 companies were ranked in the January-March 2022 period, the highest number in a quarter since the 2019/2020 fourth quarter. The number of companies awaiting inspection decreased by 7.9 percent to 51,600 companies. This is the lowest level since January 2021.

Of these, the largest number – at 27 percent – is classified as “other catering venues” which includes home-cooked restaurants. More than 80 percent of those awaiting screening in this category are registered at a private home address. Nearly 14,000 new businesses were added in the quarter and more than 7,300 closed.

Local authorities are also concerned about meeting food hygiene intervention targets and standards until March 31, 2023. A large number of establishments with the lowest categories will require food hygiene inspections, and sites in the two highest risk categories will be subject to inspections again.

Another problem is the difficulties in recruiting and retaining appropriately qualified staff with budget cuts and hiring freezes.

Other cases

The FSA’s board of directors also discussed a program aimed at reducing the number of civil servants to 2016 levels in three years. No staffing targets have yet been set for the FSA, but the agency has been asked to design scenarios that involve far fewer people.

The head of the Free Syrian Army, Suzanne Gibb, said she was deeply concerned about the impact that a reduction in staffing could have on the agency’s ability to provide safe food to people in the UK.

“Our exit from the EU has brought a huge amount of additional work for the FSA that will never end. And if we are to seize the opportunities from leaving the EU, we need resources to do more, not less.

A pilot was conducted in April to test the use of new remote assessment techniques to conduct audit activities, including verification of key records. Six more trials with local authorities are scheduled between May and July.

In terms of food crime, Operation Blackthorn began in March 2022 after receiving intelligence that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was replacing Scottish smoked salmon with a lower quality product from Poland.

In 2020, there was a significant decrease in the reporting of GI infection to national surveillance in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the incidence of Campylobacter in the UK returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, however, Salmonella and Shiga toxin O157-producing Escherichia coli O157 remained low for reasons that are not yet clear. A survey of gastrointestinal diseases during COVID-19 is expected to be published in late 2022.

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