Austerity: 50,000 outstanding food premises hygiene checks outstanding
As Britain heads towards (some sort of) Brexit, trade deals with the likes of America mean reducing standards of everything from food to workers rights. But it also means reducing the standards or capabilities of the agencies that monitor them in the first place. Austerity has been the vehicle to deliver worsening checks in areas of public health with one very typical example among many – reducing public safety standards with regard to food hygiene.
TruePublica’s report “Appalling US food standards will add £1billion to NHS to combat serious food poisoning” – adds that food poisoning rates are 10 times higher in the US than they currently are in the UK and provides a detailed (and quite revolting) list of acceptable additions to food that are completely unacceptable in the UK such as parasites, animal faeces, maggots, sand, grit and so on. Unchecked is an organisation that exposes the failure to properly enforce rules in Britain such as food hygiene, the workplace and product purchases and shows why strong protections matter.
According to a Freedom of Information request obtained by the Unchecked.uk campaign, over fifty thousand food hygiene checks were outstanding in 2017/18, leading to fears that serious hygiene breaches could be missed by under-resourced Local Authority teams.
Unchecked.uk found that only 11 per cent of councils managed to carry out all their planned food checks on time, while eight Local Authorities missed over 1,000 inspections of local food businesses.
These concerns are amplified by findings showing that, while there is 90 per cent compliance on food safety across all premises, 80 per cent of the highest risk A-rated food premises and 36 per cent of B-rated food premises in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are failing to meet basic food hygiene standards – such as cleanliness, correct handling of food, and temperature control. A- or B-rated food businesses include establishments with a track record of poor hygiene, larger-scale premises handling raw meat or fish, premises where food contamination is more likely to happen, and businesses serving children or the elderly.
Poor hygiene practices can greatly increase the emergence and spread of bacteria which can cause food-borne illness and food poisoning, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli O157. These infections can be highly dangerous, posing the greatest risk to babies, young children, the elderly and the ill.
Emma Rose, Project Lead at Unchecked.uk, said: “Most food businesses are meeting basic hygiene standards, but compliance in high-risk premises is poor, and the number of overdue food checks raises questions about whether the UK’s food safety regime is ready for the challenges ahead. Local Authority enforcement teams are just not being given the tools they need to do their job, which is undermining their efforts to keep people safe.”
The campaign is the latest to voice a concern that the UK’s food system is buckling and is ill-equipped to deal with additional pressures brought about by Brexit. Recently, the National Audit Office flagged serious problems in the UK’s food regulatory system.  The Food Standards Agency’s new inspection strategy has also come under fire, with many expressing concern that it represents a weakening of UK food law enforcement. In particular, the proposal that food businesses should contract third-party assurance providers to carry out their inspections has drawn criticism.
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Steve Nash, Consumer Advisor on E. coli O157 said: “Whilst Local Authority staff and other Government inspectors work very hard, they are not being supported well enough. The Food Standards Agency now needs to take a good hard look at its failings and address them. What is needed is more truly independent Local Authority food inspectors on the ground, not food industry accreditation companies marking food businesses’ own homework – which is what the Agency is planning for future UK food inspections.”
An Environment Health Officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “For around 10 years Local Authority budgets and Environmental Health staff numbers have been reduced. In many cases this has had a direct impact on both the number and quality of food hygiene interventions. These pressures can mean less time is available to complete an inspection and can lead to poor hygiene being overlooked.
“Alongside this, there has been a significant increase in the number of food businesses in the past few years. This poses a real risk to Local Authorities which are already struggling to address a backlog of overdue inspections.”