The Food Standards Agency1 (FSA) and other departments must work together to make food regulation financially sustainable and manage emerging risks such as climate change, population growth, crop disease, food fraud and potentially importing more food from non-EU countries, according to today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Failures in food safety can have catastrophic consequences for human life, public confidence and the economy. Around 1 million people in the UK suffer an illness from food each year, potentially costing £1 billion. Managing food safety is challenging because of the highly complex food supply system, which involves food producers, processors, retailers and caterers of varying sizes.

The cost of delivering food controls in England in 2016-17 was an estimated £164 million, with 73% of costs being met by local authorities and port health authorities. Spending on food hygiene by local authorities fell by an estimated 19% between 2012-13 and 2017-18 because of funding pressures2. Food hygiene staff numbers declined by an estimated 13% relative to the number of food businesses in operation over this period, while food standards staff reduced by 45%3.

Consequently, some local authorities are failing to meet their legal responsibilities to ensure food businesses comply with the law. The proportion of hygiene checks of businesses (including detecting unsafe food) that were ‘due’ and successfully carried out rose between 2012-13 and 2017-18, from 82% to 86%. However, less than half the food standards checks (to ensure food is what it says it is) that were due took place over this period, with only 37% carried out in 2017-18.

Nevertheless, most food businesses are meeting hygiene requirements, and levels of major food-borne illnesses have been broadly stable. Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, numbers of food businesses that were at least ‘broadly compliant’ with food hygiene requirements in England increased from 87% in 2013-14 to 90% in 2017-18. Laboratory confirmed human cases of key food-borne diseases are currently below levels that would trigger an FSA investigation.

The FSA monitors levels of illnesses from food and whether businesses are meeting food hygiene requirements. However, the FSA currently assesses whether food is what it says it is based on consumer confidence rather than on objective evidence of food authenticity. The FSA has begun to develop measures to improve its data in this area.

The public needs better information to make well-informed choices about what food to buy or what services to use. Food hygiene ratings for businesses are published online, but in England, where display is not mandatory, only 52% of businesses display food hygiene ratings in their premises, compared to 87% in Wales and 84% in Northern Ireland, where display is mandatory. The public also remain unclear on what information food businesses should provide about whether food contains allergens.

The FSA recognises that it needs to respond to new risks and challenges and has begun reforming its regulatory system to help it better direct resources according to risk. This includes changing how food businesses are registered and introducing national inspection strategies for food businesses with more than one site.

The FSA re-prioritised some of its reforms to prepare for EU Exit. The UK’s Exit from the EU will have a significant impact on the UK as some 90% of UK food legislation reflects EU regulations. Around half of the food consumed in the UK is produced in the EU and other countries, often through complex global supply systems. The FSA spent £6.2 million of its budget on EU Exit preparations and received £15 million of additional EU Exit funding across 2017-18 and 2018-19. For example, the FSA has built its capacity to deal with food incidents if the UK loses access to EU systems and networks.

However, the FSA has found it difficult to progress its reforms in other areas. Some reforms will require legislative changes, but these may not be possible in the near-term due to the parliamentary programme being delayed by the government’s preparations for EU Exit.

The government does not have a clear view on what a financially sustainable food regulation system should look like. It is considering making businesses bear more of the costs of regulation, but there are concerns that this could burden businesses and local economies. The NAO has not seen evidence of joined-up strategic thinking about the level of funding needed for a sustainable system that protects UK consumers from future food risks, and how much local authorities and businesses should contribute.

The NAO recommends that within six months of the UK leaving the EU, the FSA and government should start to evaluate the medium- and longer-term impacts of EU Exit on the food regulation system and identify potential resource gaps. Clarity is needed on what can be done to avoid incidents that may affect future confidence in the food system and trading relationships.

“The regulatory system is showing signs of strain with fewer food control staff in local authorities and delays in the checks they carry out on food businesses. This is at a time when the regulatory system faces increased challenges, particularly as we move towards new trading relationships after the UK leaves the EU.”

Gareth Davies, the new head of the NAO

Read the full report

Ensuring food safety and standards

Notes for editors

Key facts

Food Standards Agency (FSA) 2015 estimate of the total approximate annual cost of food-borne illness including the cost of the impact of illness on individual well-being, loss of earnings and hospital admissions

FSA estimate of the total cost of delivering official food controls in England in 2016-17

approximate number of food businesses in England in 2017-18 90% food businesses that achieved ‘broad compliance’ or better with hygiene requirements in 2017-18

estimated decline in the number of food hygiene staff (per 1,000 food businesses) between 2012-13 and 2017-18

estimated decline in the number of food standards staff (per 1,000 food businesses) between 2012-13 and 2017-18

proportion of ‘due’ food standards interventions undertaken by local authorities in 2017-18 compared with 43% in 2012-13

proportion of all food consumed in the UK that is produced outside the UK  

Notes for Editors

  1. Responsibility for food regulation policy in the UK is devolved. In England, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has policy responsibility for food and feed safety controls (including hygiene) and food safety standards (for example, allergen labelling). The FSA is an independent non-ministerial government department that aims to ensure food is safe and what it says it is. The FSA is accountable to parliament through the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Other parts of government have related policy responsibilities. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has policy responsibility for ensuring food meets composition standards (e.g. minimum meat content) and food labelling other than safety and nutrition. DHSC has policy responsibility for nutrition standards (including health claims and nutritional labelling). The FSA is directly responsible for food hygiene safety controls at producers of meat, dairy products, and wine. In addition, it is responsible for ensuring that food controls are delivered by environmental health and trading standards officers within local authorities and port health authorities.
  2. The NAO last reported on the food system in 2013, Food safety and authenticity in the processed meat supply chain:
  3. There are two main types of risk to the consumer from the food supply system: that they will be harmed, or that they will be misled: 1. food safety controls (including hygiene control) mitigate risks from, microbiological, chemical, physical, radiological or allergen contamination that could render the food unsafe for human consumption; and 2. food standards controls (including safety, composition and nutrition standards) cover labelling on allergen content, food composition or the nutritional quality of food.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  5. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.

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