The National Audit Office (NAO) has undertaken an efficiency review of the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) delivery of meat hygiene official controls.

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The Food Standards Agency and the delivery of meat hygiene official controls

The Food Standards Agency, a non-ministerial Government department, is responsible for food safety and food hygiene across the UK. This includes ensuring that the meat industry safeguards the health of the public, and the health and welfare of animals at slaughter. To achieve this, the FSA delivers “official controls” in 1,054 approved meat premises in England, Scotland and Wales, involving specified inspections to verify that those premises comply with European Union Food Hygiene Regulations.

The Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland forms part of the UK-wide Food Standards Agency, although official controls are delivered differently there compared to Great Britain. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) provides official controls in more than 50 approved meat premises in Northern Ireland on behalf of the FSA.

The cost of delivering official controls in 2012-13 is budgeted at £50.1m for Great Britain and £5.4m for Northern Ireland. The FSA’s delivery of official controls is funded from two sources, with around 56 per cent funded from charges to industry, and the remainder funded by the taxpayer.

The scope of our work

In January 2013 the FSA asked the NAO to undertake a review of the efficiency of their delivery of meat hygiene official controls in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which should include both FSA frontline and support functions. The focus of the review was exclusively on the efficiency of delivering those controls, in terms of the financial and other resources used by the FSA in doing so. The review did not set out to address the effectiveness of the official controls, although it comments on some factors where they are relevant to both efficiency and effectiveness.

Our methodology

We used a range of different methods to evaluate the efficiency of meat hygiene controls. These methods included: interviews with FSA management and staff, and with Food Business Operators, industry representatives, and suppliers of contract staff; field visits to slaughterhouses; influence workshops with FSA analysing efficiency factors and influence; regression and frontier analysis of FSA inspection cost data; analysis of FSA indirect costs data; analysis of charging and discount methodology and data; and comparison with NAO findings on structured cost reduction across government.

Key findings and an overview of recommendations

The Food Standards Agency has reduced the costs of official controls, mainly through reductions in operational staff undertaking inspections and in back-office staff, and through increasing use of contract staff for inspections, which are less costly to the FSA than employed staff. We found that there is scope for further savings through operational improvements, but that the scale of savings through this approach is limited.

There is a wide variation in the efficiency of FSA inspection across Food Business Operators, which suggests considerable potential for further savings if this variation could be reduced. Achieving this potential will be challenging, in part because the FSA has variable influence over the factors affecting efficiency. Because FSA inspections and the use of them by Food Business Operators are highly interconnected, it is crucial that the FSA engages well with Operators, and provides them with the right incentives to use FSA inspection resources efficiently – the FSA’s current system for charging does not do this.

A step change in efficiency can only occur through more effective engagement between the FSA and other stakeholders, and a more integrated and strategic approach to pursuing, incentivising and measuring efficiency. The FSA has a large number of efficiency initiatives in development or under consideration, which will need to be managed carefully as a programme if their intended benefits are to be realised.

To support these findings we make a total of 29 recommendations covering the FSA in Great Britain and the DARD/FSA regime in Northern Ireland. These recommendations span a number of different operational areas and focus on issues such as FSA programme management, FSA structures, roles and resourcing, and recommendations on the charging and discount system. The FSA has accepted our recommendations and intends to implement them in pursuing further efficiency in delivering official controls.

Future work

The National Audit Office is currently undertaking a Value for Money audit on Providing assurances within the food chain. Our study will examine how government bodies undertake checks on meat products at different stages within the food chain to protect consumers from harm or being misled.

The report is due to be published in autumn 2013.


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