13/01/2017 | John Brennan

John Barnes on the future of Local Authority food controls

John Barnes

13/01/2017 | John Brennan

John Barnes on the future of Local Authority food controls

As we enter the New Year, we asked John Barnes, Shield Safety Group’s Strategic Advisor and former Head of Local Delivery at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to give us his views and a few predictions about future 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 and 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. Frankly, international businesses will need to continue to observe current EU andor global requirements if they want to export. Even changes of national rules to potentially benefit non-exporting traders are unlikely to be straight-forward as I predict a healthy resistance to change for the sake of it, especially if it risks denting consumer confidence or comes at a cost. Larger food businesses might also resent an overtly two tier system of food control, requiring different approaches and possibly distorting competition locally. So I see interesting possibilities ahead and undoubtedly some changes, especially in the Primary Production sector, but I doubt any changes will be simple to implement or quick.

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?

Firstly, the current LA inspection regime across over 600K food businesses is not sustainable. LA Food Officers have done a great job to date in maintaining inspection levels given the massive cuts in their resources – but these cuts are foreseen to get much 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.

However, the main reason for change is a growing awareness that the current regime is not the best one to regulate the market place for consumers. It reflects a time when both food production and the supply chain were more local and more food was prepared at home. Now, the supply system is complex and food production is much more industrialised.

Considering the food and drink industry is the UK’s largest industrial sector, with upward of 4m employees and almost 50% of products imported, the current publically funded LA delivery model which in essence relies on programmed inspections, is no longer the most effective. It takes too little account of the significant and successful investment the industry has made to address risks to consumers. 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.

Who do you think will drive these changes?

More collaboration between the public and private sector in National Control regimes is not just an issue being looked at in the UK. It is already permitted in EU control systems and what’s more, most developed countries are currently looking at how this could work better. The current interest falls out a combination of the significantly reducing public sector purse and the growing use of Accredited third party audits as part of National and International Industry Control Regimes, many of which far exceed what the law requires and potentially offers the regulator richer information about the safety and authenticity of the food supply chain.

In the UK, the FSA has clearly signalled their intention to explore making greater use of information from robust independent industry checks and giving much greater consideration to the standards and measures a business has in place when deciding whether an LA should inspect or not. They aim to propose a future regulatory delivery model by 2020 at the latest – but they may well be pressed to introduce some practical changes before that date to better target shrinking LA resources.

Do you think that changes will be plain sailing?

Unfortunately, no. Already some LAs and media are concerned about what they see as ‘self-regulation’ by industry. I can see why there are worries about change, however whatever is agreed could never be self-regulation, and the FSA are not proposing this.

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 more about a greater recognition and use by the regulator of industry control data. Every country, including the UK, seems to see an important role for the public regulator (like LAs) having some verification role to ensure the data they receive from industry as part of any arrangements is robust and accurate, and the system has credible and transparent governance.

Currently in the UK Feed and Dairy sectors, Earned Recognition information is used by LAs from the accredited third party inspections associated with the Red Tractor scheme, and up to 25% of businesses are still inspected by way of verification. This allows for appropriate corrective action or even the removal of the earned recognition arrangements altogether where concerns are identified. This approach has already reduced LA inspections by tens of thousands in these sectors, and some would argue this collaborative, co-regulation model provides much better control.

Data is now 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. My prediction is that industry data will be increasingly asked for by national regulators and used to better inform andor replace LA inspections and to help provide greater transparency of standards for consumers. For issues like food fraud, mislabelling and authenticity breaches, which are more of an issue now than previously for consumers, analysing data to help pinpoint actions is the only sensible way to target and tackle the problem anyway. Industry already accepts here that they need to work closer with the regulator to protect themselves and consumers.

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

I see significant change here also – probably 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. I am cheating a bit here because the FSA has already signalled their intention to do this, probably sometime soon i.e. this year. So any business with a low rating would be well advised to improve standards before this becomes law, or I predict uncomfortable times ahead late 2018.

Given my earlier comments, I believe that LAs will increasingly struggle to sustain inspections and provide businesses with timely FHRS ratings, especially in England where there are lower LA Officer to food business ratios. This will need to be tackled by the FSA 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 – which I predict will be a general theme in regulatory approaches in coming years – 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 or even management, 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 in this area, working alongside LAs to deliver FHRS ratings. Not replacing LA inspections, because of the value seen in LA FHRS oversight by consumers and industry, but where compliance is good because the business uses a private contractor (and thousands do) then the business may rightly be visited less frequently 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.