The Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently published their departmental plans on how they intend to radically change the way food businesses are regulated. This follows consultation since 2016 with consumers, industry and wider national and local government, as part of the FSA’s Regulating Our Future programme. We asked our Strategic Advisor, and former Head of Local Delivery at the FSA, John Barnes, what the proposed changes are likely to mean in practice for food businesses.
Are these new plans from the FSA?
Not really. The document is a consolidation of the issues the FSA has been openly discussing and presenting to various parties over the last year. Most of the key changes in the document have been covered extensively in previous Shield Safety blogs of mine on the future of Local Authority food controls, the latest FHRS updates and Permit to Trade. That said, it is still a very useful publication as it sets out very clearly the key changes the FSA would like to see and why they think such fundamental change is necessary.
Is this about changing the hygiene regulations and rules that apply to businesses?
No. The changes planned over the next few years relate to the way food regulations and compliance are policed in food businesses. Whilst Brexit might open up future opportunities to change UK hygiene and safety legislation, very little is likely to happen until after we have formally exited the EU and even then, I do not anticipate fundamental legislative change in this area.
Why does the FSA think the way food business compliance is checked needs such radical change?
One reason is the sustainability of the current controls. Monitoring data from local authorities shows food officer numbers falling significantly year on year due to competing local priorities and resources. This is eroding LA capacity and capability. Although the data suggests LA inspections are holding up reasonably well and business compliance is actually improving, there are concerns in both central and local government that the current arrangements are not sustainable in the longer term.
There is also a compelling argument that the current approach is not the most effective and needs modernising. As such, allocating additional resources – even if possible – is not seen as the answer. In the last 30 years there has been massive industry investment in technology, food safety systems and private assurance schemes to protect brands and customers. Current official controls do not take proper account of those developments, making too little use of industry data and information to target resources – duplicating, rather than utilising this assurance activity.
The FSA believe the control system needs to be more agile, making better use of technology and more able to respond to changing circumstances, production patterns and emerging risks.
What are the key changes being proposed?
In summary, the key changes proposed are:
- An enhanced Registration process which makes use of technology giving the FSA better oversight and real- time information on food businesses, using the information to support businesses to get things right from the start. FSA proposals for a Permit to Trade – much like a licence – have been shelved for the immediate future.
- More recognition of food business assurance arrangements to demonstrate compliance rather than through official inspections only. The FSA is also keen to use data from other regulators alongside that from food businesses or assurance schemes to assess management culture and the necessary intervention approach.
- Developing criteria for National Inspection Strategies for multi-site food businesses, as part of the Primary Authority Scheme. Currently few Primary Authorities have made much use of their ability to consider businesses assurance arrangements to draw up Inspection Plans which significantly reduce or direct local authority inspections for multi-site businesses.
- Charging for LA inspection activity, so businesses requiring the most intervention will bear the highest cost. Whereas businesses who have invested in their own assurance arrangements and as a result are inspected less, will pay less.
Is everything agreed and plain sailing now?
Not at all. The plans describe what the FSA would like the future model to look like but there is little detail on how it will work in practice. As this gets worked through, undoubtedly issues will surface.
One major concern voiced by some LAs and stakeholders over the last 12 months is that a greater reliance on industry compliance data is a move toward self-regulation which has notably failed in some sectors. This is why the FSA document stresses that regulators will still inspect and verify assurance schemes are working effectively and that the use of regulated private assurance to target the LA resources is not a move to self-regulation.
Another issue will be addressing the significant concerns some in industry have about supplying data to the regulator on compliance and a worry about confidential data being released more widely because of FSA Freedom of Information obligations.
The FSA sees a role for Certified Regulatory Auditors and a need to develop standards to ensure arrangements are robust and carried out by competent private auditors. These two proposals have been made with the aim of allowing regulators to have sufficient confidence in industry assurance schemes, though it is not clear how they intend to achieve either. It is not clear how this will work, the FSA capacity to do this, or even its need. Many schemes, particularly in UK manufacturing and primary production, are internationally recognised and already have very thorough independent accreditation and verification requirements to check their integrity and auditor competencies.
A big elephant in the room is how the FSA’s flagship FHRS will operate if there is a significant reduction of official inspections in compliant businesses and multi-site operations. FHRS ratings could become dated and inaccurate in these businesses which undoubtedly would undermine the success and relevance of FHRS to both businesses and consumers.
Are there immediate implications for Shield Safety clients?
No, aside from maintaining ongoing awareness of the direction of controls and maybe considering participating in FSA discussions or feasibility studies. In the longer term, the implications are very positive as the FSA intends to better recognise businesses that can demonstrate sustained compliance, reducing the regulatory burden and ensuring that intervention is proportionate. Shield Safety Group is tracking and contributing to the FSA’s Regulating Our Future programme to ensure both the company and clients are well positioned when any plans are finalised.
What are the timescales for the changes?
The FSA are hoping to have finalised their plans and processes for Enhanced Registration and Primary Authority National Inspection Strategies in time for EU exit eg. March 2019. The other changes, including proposals for mandatory FHRS in England are scheduled for after March 2019 as they will require significant working through and legislative change.
As the only consultancy provider with Primary Authority, Shield Safety Group is well-placed to support clients, existing and new, through these changes – look out for our exciting news on Assured Advice coming soon.
Our award-winning software Compliance Centre is the ideal platform to track and demonstrate compliance in preparation of these changes. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0203 740 3744 to speak to one of our friendly advisors.
The information contained in this blog article has been created for marketing purposes and is not official guidance and should not be used as a substitute for official Food Safety, Fire Safety and Health & Safety advice. Shield Safety take no responsibility if the information in the blog article is used to form part of a safety management system or used to form part of any legal or regulatory compliance for your business. For official guidance and to engage with Shield Safety services please do call our team on 020 3740 3744 or email email@example.com.