Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Submitted by British Retail Consortium

    Stores selling predominantly food, including non-specialised food stores such as supermarkets and specialised food stores, accounted for 45 per cent of total retail sales £80.4 billion in 1997—10.35 per cent of GDP by expenditure. Own label products now account for 45 per cent of all food and drink sold in the UK. BRC represents 90 per cent of the total retail trade in the UK, operating in excess of 321,000 shops and stores, occupying over 30 per cent of commercial property portfolio by floor space and providing employment for about 2.9 million people, some 11 per cent of the workforce.

    Membership covers all forms of retailing, from the large multiples through to the corner shop and machine vending.

    Retailing is a major engine of employment growth in the economy, creating 126,900 net new jobs in 1997.


  Retailers would question why government is proposing merely that the Agency has "functions" conferred on it rather than duties. BRC would prefer the latter to convey the full import of government's serious intentions regarding food standards and safety.

  BRC believes the Bill should include a broad public interest perspective wider than that spelled out under paragraph 2 regarding public health and the interests of consumers in relation to food. This would place its duties within the context of the economy and employment generally.

  BRC would also suggest that the Bill ought to acknowledge in these introductory, scene setting clauses, the lead role played by EU and international institutions like the Codex Alimentarius on food standards and safety issues.


  Subsection 1: BRC believes that regional representation within the membership of the Agency will be disproportionately high, at four members (at least one for Wales, at least two for Scotland and at least one for Northern Ireland) from within a team of 12 members which the notes say government expects will normally be appointed (explanatory notes).

  Subsection 4: The BRC firmly believes that a person's competence ought to be the sole criterion for appointment and that as long as all members have fully disclosed their interests in matters of relevance to the work of the Agency, as proposed under paragraph 9 of Schedule 1, the context of their views can be fully understood and it would be perverse to disqualify them from membership on the basis of their professional interest in the issue.

  The explanatory notes state that " . . . although the Bill does not specifically require it, the Agency's procedural rules would be expected to prevent a member with an interest in a particular matter from taking part in discussions on it. "This strongly infers that the terms of appointment would in effect preclude any food retailer and possibly many other food industry experts, academics and consumer representatives or advocates from being an Agency member. For the Agency to be a true centre of excellence it must draw on the best experts. The use of a register to declare all members' interests would ensure openness. Thus, the agency would have access to best competence.

  The Agency should take an inclusive approach to membership, as it should also to membership of any advisory committees the Agency feels it may need to establish to fulfil its duties (Clause 6, subsection 1).


  Subsection 3: BRC believes that the post of Chief Executive ought to be advertised and subject to open competition on every occasion and the appointment made by the Secretary of State for Health, rather than be a matter for the Agency, with the appropriate authorities, to internalise.


  The same procedures for declaring and registering interests which apply to the Agency membership ought to pertain to the advisory committees, both regional and advisory (see comments on Clause 2, subsection 4 above).


  Subsections 7 and 8: The Bill as proposed would give the Agency powers to publish information from "observations" which it has or had had carried out if it appeared to be in the public interest (clauses 7 and 8b). Only matters of confidentiality would mitigate that action (clause 8a). This action of releasing the information into the public domain could prejudice any subsequent legal action taken.

  The explanatory notes do not assuage retail fears on this. After the reassurance that " . . . any information obtained could not be used directly for the purposes of food law enforcement" comes the reminder that " . . . the information gathered would normally be passed to the relevant enforcement authorities who would then take a decision on the need for further investigation." Since the information could have been aired, possibly selectively, in the media, we urge that subsection 8a be revised to acknowledge also that the Agency should have regard to the likely due processes of law which may ensue, and ensure those are not undermined by the Agency's need to be transparent in its operations.


  Subsections 1 and 2: The BRC believes that setting standards of food law enforcement and monitoring the performance of enforcement authorities is probably the single most important duty of the Agency in regard to the impact it will have on assuring national food safety standards. A thorough review of current enforcement arrangements is needed, which ought to be written into the Bill as a prerequisite to any monitoring functions or, as we would prefer, duties.

  The existing structure of food law enforcement is inadequate. A thorough national review is needed to provide:

    —  consistency from Land's End to John O'Groats. While a process of greater sharing of best practice between authorities would help, the ultimate goal should be the adoption of a recognised standard to which enforcement inspections and inspectors can be audited.

    —  provide Environmental Health Officers with specialist food safety training with sub categories of specialism within that covering for example, retailing, food canning, food chilling. At present, Environmental Health Officers may work in food retail in the morning, on waste refuse issues in the afternoon and on noise pollution in the evening.

    —  full use of a risk based approach to allow resource to be focused where it is most needed and so make better use of resource.

  BRC's fuller views on what is needed from modern food safety enforcement are given in Annex I.


  1. The BRC opposes government proposals to give the Secretary of State power to impose a levy on food premises to meet some or all of the cost of the establishment of the Agency, the expenditure of the Agency and the expenditure of enforcement authorities (Clause 23). The Agency was proposed to restore consumer confidence in the machinery of government and as government will benefit most from the return to confidence, it should be prepared to fund it from the public purse. There is no integrity in government asking the food industry to pay for its own watchdog, an independent Agency was promised in the Government's manifesto and the decision to provide funds or not is a political one. Public funds should continue to pay for public work on food safety and standards (see also 5 below). Retailers already meet the cost of complying with food safety law within their businesses and should not have to foot the public bill, too.

  2. We believe better resource management would see efficiency gains over the current system of food enforcement and that any further monies identified as lacking ought to come from public coffers, should be capped to ensure there is no runaway inflation operating at local authority level, and should be ring-fenced to ensure it is indeed spent on improving food safety enforcement (see section on food enforcement, below).

  3. Retailers insist that government should retain integrity on this issue and continue to pay for the constitutional work of central government (advice to Ministers and law-making) and enforcement activities from public coffers. This will ensure that the Food Standards Agency can truly be launched as the independent body promised by Labour in its manifesto and proposed in the White Paper. "The Food Standards Agency—a force for change." BRC is supported in this by the caterers (the British Hospitality Association), the British Licensed Retailers' Association), manufacturers (Food and Drink Federation), importers and traders (Provision Trade Federation) and farmers (National Farmers' Union).

  4. Retailers contribute to the public coffers for constitutional and enforcement work when they pay corporation tax (income tax as small businesses) on their profit and when they pay business rates to fund local government activities. For small businesses in particular, which have fewer options open to them for cutting overheads, a levy on their businesses in the current, strongly competitive market means taking a cut in their profit margin. Such businesses will have to take many times the amount of the levy to cover the cost. The National Association of Master Bakers has calculated that a baker's shop would need to sell 4,000 loaves to generate the £90 in profit needed to pay the Agency levy.

  Having shops close or making it more difficult for small format retailers to remain viable runs directly counter to government's social exclusion work where it is trying to encourage retailers to open or remain open in areas of marginal business viability. Again, some integrity, with joined up thinking across departments is needed.

  5. Retailers and other food businesses meet the cost of complying with food safety law within their own businesses. Food safety is core to a food retailer's business, which for large retailers, starts with farm assurance costs incurred by working with farmers, through independent inspection of suppliers, processors and abattoirs, assuring controlled distribution networks and a secure environment in store, even to the supplier of customer information leaflets on food hygiene and handling in the home.

  6. It is alarming to retailers that Clause 23 provides for the full costs of the Agency (start up and on-going) and food enforcement to be recouped from food premises. The estimate that the levy would raise £40 million per annum initially is of academic interest. The levy is not capped, nor is it restricted to cover the start up costs only.

  7. This cost must be taken in the wider context of other charges on food business being levied by Government. The BRC calculates the total cost to food and drink retailers (and thereafter, market forces allowing, the consumer) of charges arising from government initiatives over coming months at £566 million and rising, as issues like the packaging waste regulations, staff car park tax, electrical goods recycling, progress.

    —  Food Standards Agency start-up costs: up to £30 million ((fact sheet, No. 1, 7th bullet).

    —  On-going food safety costs: up to £250 million + (fact sheet No. 2, 4th bullet).

    —  Meat Hygiene Service enforcement costs: £21.5 million (ex MAFF consultation).

    —  Fish inspection costs: £0.5 million (ex MAFF consultation).

    —  Egg inspection costs: £1 million (trade estimate).

    —  Business rate increases: £90 million (BRC estimate).

    —  National minimum wage implementation: £91 million (ex HMG est. in draft regs).

    —  Working family tax credit operation costs: £4 million (ex from Treasury answer to PQ).

    —  Working time directive: £78 million (ex DTI consultation).

  8. If the Government persists in charging food premises, the BRC must challenge the further proposal made in the consultation paper that the new annual levy should be collected from food retailers and caterers alone. There is no justifiable reason why all those responsible for providing food should not shoulder the cost IF it is to be recouped.

  IF, as the levy consultation paper states (paragraph 20), " . . . improving food safety is the key consideration of the Food Standards Agency" and IF "the government believes that as a matter of principle any exceptions should be narrowly defined", these other food premises, e.g., food manufacturers, processors, slaughterhouses, farms, distribution companies, etc., should be levied also.We would then further specify:

    —  all food premises should be registrable, including those already licensed as food businesses under other legislation. Hence current exemptions from registration for slaughter houses and meat cutting plant, dairies, ships and places providing institutional meals, such as schools, hotels and residential homes.

    —  BRC dismisses Government's contention that there is no realistic alternative to applying the levy to premises at the final point of sale to the consumer. The so-called cumulative effect which the proposal to levy only retailers and caterers aims to avoid is very largely illusory. To quote the government's own estimates, there are some 515,000 registered retailers and caterers in the UK within a total of 600,000 food businesses identified in the White Paper last year.

  Government must not allow the levy to be varied by authority or locality.


  The BRC believes it would be preferable for the PSD and the VMD to be brought within the scope of the Agency and so enhance the Agency's powers to act throughout the food chain directly rather than via these Directorates acting under the aegis of MAFF. It would reduce yet further the fragmentation between the government bodies involved in food safety and promote greater consistency in the enforcement of food.

  When giving evidence to the Committee on 9 March, Dr Brand asked me in the discussion regarding food safety for detailed comments on the clauses in the Bill (403). The BRC view on clause 14 is set out below, while our views on the food safety regime reform needed are set out in the annex.

  I shall write to you next week with full BRC comments on the Bill as drafted, ahead of your 30 March deadline.

March 1999




  The British Retail Consortium believes the launch of the Food Standards Agency should trigger a review of food law enforcement in the UK. The current system is inefficient and inadequate. Co-ordinated activity would achieve considerable savings in some areas and make enforcement much more effective. Good food law enforcement should have the following objectives:

    (i)  The assurance of food safety and standards, and thereby public confidence.

    (ii)  The encouragement of best practice in legal compliance.

    (iii)  The consistent, effective use of public funds, to achieve its objectives. Further, that it does not require undue input from private resource within own businesses.

    (iv)  The application of an open and agreed standard of compliance.


  2.1 The present enforcement system is out of date. It is inefficient and fails to meet the needs of retailers, large and small. The structure of enforcement responsibility is fragmented and incapable of dealing with the modern food chain. At present, local authorities have diverse enforcement priorities, differences of interpretation, inadequate training, scarce and wasted resources. This is most obvious to national and multi-outlet retailers which frequently suffer from over-inspection (in comparison with the risk posed by the business) and contradictory requirements from different local authorities.

2.2 Inspection Standards

  2.2.1 Standards of inspection under the current system need to be improved. Ideally, inspection should be carried out to an agreed, open standard which is auditable, e.g., EN4 5004. BRC recognises enforcement bodies may need time to work to this pending which they should improve peer review to promote best practice. There is much work still to be done on the risk assessment process and in identifying where the hazards lie, so that enforcement activity can be directed more effectively and "low risk" businesses can be subjected to fewer visits and interruptions.

  2.2.2 Specialist training of enforcement staff, e.g., to have food retail inspectors is also required, in order that their attention can be more effectively targeted in the appropriated places.

  2.2.3 There is also a need to enhance the competence of environmental health enforcement staff and of their understanding of the types of businesses they are inspecting. This would reduce the impractical demands on businesses which are made in some cases, as a result of poor understanding of how businesses work.

2.3 Home/Lead Authorities

  The current Home Authority system is, in essence, based on the geographical location of a businesse's head office. This frequently causes difficulties when that authority is small or chooses not to give its Home Authority duties high priority. A funding mechanism could help to improve the Home Authority's ability to act in that capacity, but not necessarily its will to do so.

  An alternative might be to create Lead Authority Groups so that, for example, five or six authorities specialising in Supermarket Retailing might offer to provide such a service in that sector of business. A retailer could "sign up" with any of these authorities to provide the systems audit programme. Separate groupings might be set up for Environmental Health and Trading Standards, but they would be able to maintain regular contact and exchange of views, which would lead to more consistent enforcement than the current system.

  Most Trading Standards authorities have trained Lead Assessors who are capable of carrying out these audits to a high standard, identifying the areas of non-compliance or lack of diligence. BRC believes this may not be the case for Environmental Health. This is a training issue which needs to be addressed anyway if local authorities are to achieve the expected performance levels in the area of Food Standards enforcement. This will need to be a priority for any co-ordinating body, not least because standards of inspection are already highly variable and need to be regularised.


  Current enforcement systems generally operate from the bottom up, i.e., visits to individual retail and catering outlets from where any contraventions are pursued upwards through the chain of command, ultimately to a company's head office. This is extremely wasteful, leading to massive duplication of effort on the part of enforcement bodies and much wasted resource both for enforcement and business, not to mention the frustration of multiple retailers having to deal with the same enquiries about due diligence procedures over and over again.

  The proposal advocates an alternative "top down" approach for businesses with multiple trading sites, in the form of a holistic look at the business' procedures and infrastructure to determine its ability to comply with food standards requirements. It is an opportunity to improve the quality of enforcement; a chance to bring value-for-money to the subject, very much in line with "Best Value" initiatives in local government and with Better Regulation. It would require a fresh look at the "Home Authority" system, probably with a development into a "Lead Authority" approach, allowing those bodies to control and co-ordinate the audit process.

  The Systems Audit is an alterative approach to auditing and inspecting businesses with multiple premises, based on the "top down" approach. The major element of this proposition is a systems audit or "health check" of a business' systems and controls. This would be carried out by the Home (or Lead) Authority for the business and would consist of an audit of the precautions taken and diligence exercised by the business to ensure legal compliance. Such an audit would be able to determine a business's attitude and commitment to compliance as well as whether or not its procedures were sound. This is a sensible business partnership approach and would offer opportunities to reassure all enforcement bodies of the competence of the business itself.

  Such an audit would include visits to the Head Office of the business, careful examination of all procedural manuals concerned with legal compliance, visits to depots, suppliers and retail stores to inspect effectiveness of the company's procedures. The auditors should be free to interview staff and make some unannounced visits.

  The outcome of this would be a draft report which identifies any shortcomings discovered during the audit. The business should then be given the opportunity to consider and respond to the recommendations in the draft report, and resolve any non-compliances before the final report is concluded.

  Such a "health check" of a business forms a solid foundation for establishing local authority confidence in the business' ability and commitment to legal compliance. However, it is not complete without further surveillance to ensure that it continues to be diligent in its efforts.

  The Systems Audit would be backed up by random sample inspections, co-ordinated by the Home/Lead authority. In this way, resources can be targeted efficiently in order to assess confidence in the various activities which are the subject of the audit. Different procedures can be tested in different places and the quality of management assessed. Reports would be fed back to the Home/Lead Authority and the results measured against the Systems Audit to see if the business continued to deliver compliance by way of due diligence.

  Such a co-ordinated inspection plan offers a far better picture of a business than the diverse and disconnected visits currently undertaken throughout the UK with little or no communication of the results to any central point for review. It also offers considerable savings to local authorities because fewer (but more effective) inspections would actually be undertaken.

  No local authority would be precluded from making visits outside the co-ordinated inspection programme if it so wished, but with confidence established in the system and with businesses this should rarely be necessary.

  There are many ways to comply with the law, which have to create a balance of checks and controls to provide a standard of confidence in legal compliance. It is therefore for the Home Authority to determine the degree of compliance, for which sound assessor skills need to be employed. The performance of the business would need to be measured against "best practice" principles to determine the degree of confidence. But over time, BRC believe it ought to be possible to agree a standard for a systems audit.

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