John Barnes on the future of Local Authority food controls

Shield Safety GroupIn a recent blog, Shield Safety Group's Strategic Advisor and former Head of Local Delivery at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shared his views and predictions on the future of Local Authority food controls.

Do you foresee any radical changes to Local Authority food controls? 

In terms of legislation, not really. Even Brexit inspired changes will take time to work through. Whilst I am sure Ministers will want to highlight some early Brexit gains in terms of reducing EU red tape, these will need to be identified and then agreed with stakeholders. In terms of Local Authority (LA) approach and the number of LA inspections carried out, I envisage radical change over the next 3-5 years as inevitable.

Why is this? 

The current LA inspection regime across over 600K food businesses is not sustainable. LA Food Officers have done a great job in maintaining inspection levels given the massive cuts in their resources - but these cuts are foreseen to get worse. LAs have competing social care and other public health priorities, so politically they will find it difficult to prioritise inspections of low risk food businesses and businesses with good standards and their own controls in place.

The current publically funded LA delivery model which in essence relies on programmed inspections is no longer the most effective. That is not to say LAs do not have a very important role, however, in the future they will most likely be asked to work more closely with the industry to make more formal use of the extensive knowledge and information the industry has on risks to target their interventions to best effect.

I see the roll out of Primary Authority (PA) and Earned Recognition (giving information from accredited third party audits greater weight when deciding inspection frequencies) as inevitable.

Do you think changes will be plain sailing? 

Unfortunately, no. Some LAs and media are already concerned about what they see as 'self-regulation' by industry. Self-regulation implies no Competent Authority oversight, which is not allowed in EU legislation and would undoubtedly undermine consumer confidence upon which the industry depends. The changes being considered are about a greater recognition and use by the regulator of industry control data. Every country seems to see an important role for the public regulator having some verification role to ensure the data they receive from industry is robust and accurate and the system has credible and transparent governance.

Data is the new natural resource of the 21st century, so greater use will be made over the next few years of this readily available information to direct controls. I predict industry data will be increasingly requested by national regulators and used to better inform and\or replace LA inspections, to help provide greater transparency of standards for consumers. For issues like food fraud, mislabelling and authenticity breaches, analysing data to help pinpoint actions is the only sensible way to target and tackle the problem anyway.

What about Food Hygiene Rating Scores (FHRS) - what does the new year hold for that? 

This is the one area where I see a significant Food Safety legislative change on the immediate horizon. I predict the FSA will be keen to put proposals to Ministers for mandatory display in England, following its success in Wales and changes made last October in Northern Ireland, especially as the FSA has already signalled their intention to do this most likely this year. So any business with a low rating would be well advised to improve standards before this becomes law.

I believe LAs will struggle to sustain inspections and provide businesses with timely FHRS ratings, especially in England where there are lower LA Officer to food business ratios. The FSA will need to tackle this because inspection frequencies for compliant businesses moving beyond 18 months or even 3 years in some areas, could risk FHRS losing its relevance to consumers and businesses.

LAs have done a fantastic job in embedding and running the scheme and it now has real value to businesses and consumers, however there will be problems with infrequent ratings if mandating in England is being sought. This greater transparency of standards for consumers via the internet and social media has leveraged significant improvements to standards and resonated well with both industry and the public.

But why should a business be forced to display a 3-year-old rating which might not come close to reflecting their current standards if an alternative collaborative approach could help sustain the system and provide more accurate information to consumers?

I see a role for accredited independent contractors to work alongside LAs to deliver FHRS ratings in businesses where compliance is good. This is not to replace LA inspections because there is value seen in LA FHRS oversight by consumers and industry, however to enable these businesses to be less frequently visited by the LA.

Hence, a system where the LA could receive and make use of that information to ensure their FHRS business ratings accurately reflect current conditions and help target their valuable resources to other riskier premises is likely to be attractive and I predict will be further explored over 2017.

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