Memorandum submitted by the Association of Public Analysts (SFS 73)

 

1. Executive Summary

1.1 It is almost 150 years since the first overarching legislation protecting consumers from adulterated and dangerous food.

1.2 The Public Analyst Service is a vital resource for society, providing reliable analytical results and expert legal opinion on the quality, safety and probity of food, water and animal feedstuffs, identifying fraud and thereby helping to maintain the public's confidence in its food supply.

1.3 Complex labelling and persuasive advertising are increasing the number and variety of claims being made about foodstuffs. These claims, together with increasing commodity prices and lengthening supply chains are all serving to make the work of the Public Analyst as essential in the future as it has been since 1860.

1.4 The Food Standards Agency is the UK competent body for the implementation and monitoring of feed and food law. Yet it has no direct control over many aspects of food law enforcement, including the provision of laboratory testing services or the sampling activities, as these are delegated in practice to the Local Authorities.

1.5 Local Authorities are required to appoint a Public Analyst and an Agricultural Analyst[1] to help discharge the authority's food and feed control enforcement duties. There is, however, no requirement in law for Local Authorities either to employ a Public Analyst or to provide the appointed Public Analyst with laboratories, equipment or other facilities with which to carry out these duties.

1.6 There is no centrally-coordinated, strategic direction or funding of the UK's official Food Control Laboratories.

1.7 There are no nationally-agreed guideline budgets for sampling and analysis, or targets set for risk-assessed sampling levels, to support this essential food control work.

1.8 The UK food industry is worth about 150 billion annually, yet only 8 million is spent on ensuring the safety of that food through routine food analysis.

1.9 In the view of the Association of Public Analysts, the Food Standards Agency is failing to address adequately the serious decline in the Public Analyst Service, which already poses serious risks to the safety of the public food supply, in terms of both ongoing health & safety issues and its long-term sustainability.

1.10 Thus, one of the greatest strengths of the UK food system could soon prove to be its Achilles Heel, particularly given the increasing globalisation of elements within the supply chain, coupled with lower standards of control elsewhere in the world.

 

2. Introduction - the Public Analyst Service

2.1 Public Analysts are highly-skilled and experienced scientists whose statutory role[2] is to protect the safety of the public's food supply and, similarly, that of animal feeding stuffs, through the monitoring for and identification of contaminants, illegal additives and misleading or fraudulent labelling. They provide the expert scientific evidence in the legal context necessary for the prosecution of fraud and related cases involving food and animal feeding stuffs. Their primary focus is on the chemical analysis of food, an aspect of food law enforcement which is often overlooked (see, for example, its complete absence from the recent report by the Strategy Unit of the Cabinet Office[3]). Further, in spite of the importance to the human food chain of ensuring the probity of animal feeding stuffs, this area of work receives even less attention. Microbiological investigations relating to food safety are also carried out (particularly in Scotland) by Public Analysts.

2.2 Only individuals possessing the Mastership in Chemical Analysis (MChemA) are eligible for appointment as a Public Analyst. Before embarking on study for this postgraduate qualification, individuals must be professional members of the Royal Society of Chemistry. As such they are subject to a rigorous code of conduct and are required to maintain high standards of competence and ethical behaviour.

2.3 Recent years have seen an increase in the instances of both deliberate and accidental contamination of food. Melamine in milk products of Chinese origin and dioxin in pork and lamb of Irish origin are among the most recent and both are potentially injurious to health. Without adequate enforcement activity, contaminated food can find its way into many different food products. For example, it has been estimated that the cost to UK industry of recalling the 600 different products containing Worcester sauce contaminated with Sudan I from chilli powder, was between 100m and 200m. Yet the contamination was discovered in Italy, not in Rochdale where the sauce was manufactured.

2.4 The Public Analyst Service is a vital resource for society, providing reliable analytical results and expert legal opinion on the quality, safety and probity of food, water and animal feedstuffs, identifying fraud and thereby helping to maintain the public's confidence in its food supply.

3 How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

"In some cases the food fraudster can apply highly sophisticated techniques and make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the public to detect that food fraud has occurred. Thus, as part of food fraud control enforcement, there must be an equally sophisticated analytical service to support the food enforcement officer in the field." (Food Standards Agency, 2008[4])

3.1 One of the greatest strengths of the UK food system could soon prove to be its Achilles Heel, particularly given the increasing globalisation of elements within the supply chain, coupled with lower standards of control elsewhere in the world. It is 150 years since the first overarching legislation protecting consumers from adulterated and dangerous food.

3.2 Since then the UK has benefited from legislation seeking to monitor and control the safety of the public's food supply. This control has been augmented and, in some instances, superseded by even more rigorous measures under European legislation. Feeding stuffs for animals which form part of the human food chain are also similarly subject to strict legislative monitoring and control. EU Member States are required to ensure that adequate financial resources are available to provide the necessary staff and other resources for official controls.

3.3 The Food Standards Agency is the UK competent body for the implementation and monitoring of feed and food law. Legislation thus requires the Food Standards Agency to ensure that: (a) there is adequate provision of accredited laboratory testing services; (b) there are sufficient qualified and experienced staff to ensure that official controls are carried out efficiently and effectively; and (c) the staff have appropriate and properly-maintained facilities and equipment to ensure that they can perform official controls efficiently and effectively.

3.4 In practice, the Food Standards Agency delegates its legal duties with respect to inspection, sampling and analysis to the (459) Local Authorities throughout the UK. It thus has no direct control over many aspects of food law enforcement, including the provision of laboratory testing services or the sampling activities within the Local Authorities and the costs are viewed as being the financial responsibility of the Local Authorities.

3.5 Shire counties and single-tier Local Authorities are required to appoint a Public Analyst and an Agricultural Analyst[5] to help discharge the authority's food and feed control enforcement duties. There is, however, no requirement in law for Local Authorities either to employ a Public Analyst or to provide the appointed Public Analyst with laboratories, equipment or other facilities with which to carry out these duties.

3.6 Some Local Authorities maintain appropriately-accredited laboratories and in them, Public Analysts and their staff are Local Authority employees. Others, usually through a tendering process, award contracts to one or more laboratories in the public or private sector which may or may not be geographically 'close'. There are currently two private-sector providers, both of which are international privately-owned companies operating a number of laboratories globally.

3.7 Complex labelling and persuasive advertising are increasing the number and variety of claims being made about foodstuffs. These claims, together with increasing commodity prices and lengthening supply chains are all serving to make the work of the Public Analyst as essential into the future as it has been since 1850.

3.8 There is no centrally-coordinated, strategic direction or funding of the UK's official Food Control Laboratories.

3.9 There are no nationally-agreed guideline budgets (for example, per head of population or per food premises) for sampling and analysis, or targets set for risk-assessed sampling levels, to support this essential food control work.

3.10 Local Authorities view sampling and analysis as an effective tool for food standards enforcement; however, lack of resources is often cited as a reason for carrying out little or no sampling activity[6].

3.11 Food Standards Agency data show a continued decline in Local Authority sampling rates. Figures presented to the Food Standards Agency Board in February 2008[7] include an element of double counting[8]. Even so, the total number of "samples" for the nine months to December 2007 was 113,968 - equivalent to just under 152,000 for the whole year.

3.12 This compares with 181,000 in 2003 and represents a fall of more than 16% over the four years.

3.13 On a per capita basis, this is half the number taken in Germany[9]. Eight Local Authorities reported taking no samples during the year 2007-08 and two Local Authorities have not indicated whether they are taking any samples in 2008-09.

3.14 Local Authority sampling activity throughout the UK has fallen by 16% since 2003 (Scotland shows 29.2% drop since 2004/05) and spending on analysis is falling throughout the UK.

3.15 In one large English authority, spending has fallen by 30% in real terms over the past decade and York City Council has cut its spending by a third from last year.

3.16 The average amount spent on food analysis by Public Analysts in England & Wales (excluding London) is 10p per head per year; in some areas it is as little as 2p.

3.17 This compares with 46p[10] in the Republic of Ireland.

3.18 Laboratory closures have occurred in both the public and private sectors. The most recent closure was a private-sector facility in Birkenhead, with the redundancy of two Public Analysts[11]; Aberdeen City Council has postponed for several months a decision on the future of its laboratory[12]; and the future of a public-sector laboratory in England is now also uncertain.

3.19 The number of laboratories has decreased by a third since 1997[13]. There are currently only 41 Public Analysts employed in 21 laboratories throughout the UK. The age profile of the profession demonstrates that a 'demographic time bomb' is imminent -more than 60% of those currently employed as Public Analysts are over 50 years of age.

3.20 This decline has come about partly as a result of sampling levels having fallen below the level which would provide the income to sustain laboratories and/or staff.

3.21 Closures of Local Authority laboratories have resulted from decisions taken at a local level for either political or financial reasons.

3.22 For the past 3 years, the Food Standards Agency has been conducting a 'review' of the Public Analyst Service, but this has still not been put to the promised consultation. During this time the Service has continued to decline to a level which already poses serious risks to the safety of the public food supply, in terms of both ongoing health & safety issues with the food supply and also in terms of the its longer term sustainability.

 

4. How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable? In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system?

4.1 The Public Analyst service has a critical place within the supply side. It has responsibility for monitoring the composition of fertilizers. Through its monitoring of primary agricultural produce it is also able, albeit post hoc, to identify environmental quality or contamination issues.

 

5. What trends are likely to emerge on the demand side of the food system in the UK, in terms of consumer tastes and habits, and what will be their main effect? What use could be made of local food networks?

5.1 The public is already increasingly demanding of information about the source and composition of the food it purchases and consumes, with rising concerns about authenticity. Readily-available foodstuffs (both original and processed) are increasingly varied, showing great variety in compositional requirements, additives, contaminants, genetically modified foods, irradiated foods. The public are being encouraged to protect their health by eating more sensibly.

5.2 Already, on average 1 in five (20%) of food samples tested in the UK each year attracts an adverse report as a result of either labelling or compositional faults[14],[15].

5.3 The Public Analyst service had, by 2003, declined to such a level that it had been a real challenge for it to respond appropriately to the Sudan I incident[16].

5.4 At the end of 2008, one large UK Port Health Authority had to contact laboratories throughout the country to find one able to carry out analysis for melamine in Chinese foods in a timely manner.

5.5 All these demand-side pressures will increase going forward and there is nothing to suggest that in the UK or globally, economic drivers will serve to do anything other than increase the risks of sophisticated food fraud in pursuit of profit. The activities of the Public Analyst service will, therefore, become even more crucial to public health and safety. As currently resourced, however, it could prove extremely difficult for the Public Analyst service to react to any major new food scare. Within five years, it will be impossible to provide the country with the analytical services to enable it to meet its statutory obligations with respect to food control and enforcement.

 

6. What role should Defra play both in ensuring the strengths of the UK food system are maintained and in addressing the weaknesses that have been identified? What leadership and assistance should Defra provide to the food industry?

6.1 Defra should further encourage the food industry to review the appropriateness of its spending on advertising and promotion of food and drink, which increased by 19% between 2003 and 2007 (from 704m to 838m)[17].

6.2 Separately, it might encourage the Treasury to consider, in the interests of improving the overall health of the nation through the continued monitoring of the safety and nutritional quality of the food supply, imposing a modest tax levy on such promotional spending. By way of example, a 1% tax levy on the 838m spent in 2007 would yield 8.38m. This would be sufficient to fund centrally-coordinated, strategically planned UK-wide food inspection and sampling activity, while also removing this financial burden from Local Authorities and enabling them to spend their own revenue on appropriately locally-accountable work in, for example, local small manufacturers and suppliers, pubs, restaurants etc.

 

7. How well does Defra engage with other relevant departments across Government, and with European and international bodies, on food policy and the regulatory framework for the food supply chain? Is there a coherent cross-Government food strategy?

7.1 Defra is represented on the Food Standards Agency and although a cross-Government food strategy is emerging, any such strategy will fail if appropriate measures are not in place to ensure the underlying sustainability of the service which provides the means to control and enforce existing legislation with respect to the quality and safety of the food supply.

 

8. What criteria should Defra use to monitor how well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling global food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

 

February 2009



[1] Although separate appointments are made under different legislation, most if not all, Public Analysts are also Agricultural Analysts or Deputy Agricultural Analysts. For simplicity, only the term Public Analyst is used throughout.

[2] See Regulation 36 of The Official Feed and Food Controls (England) Regulations 2006 http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2006/20060015.htm

[3] Food Matters Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century (The Strategy Unit July 2008) http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/cabinetoffice/strategy/assets/food/food_matters1.pdf

[4] The Final Report of the Food Fraud Task Force, September 2007 http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/board/fsa070907.pdf

[5] Although separate appointments are made under different legislation, most if not all, Public Analysts are also Agricultural Analysts or Deputy Agricultural Analysts. For simplicity, only the term Public Analyst is used throughout.

[6] Summary Report on the Focused Audit Programme on Food Sampling in England October - December 2002, FSA 2003 (see http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/samplingsummaryreport.pdf)

[7] See http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/board/info090201.pdf

[8] Paper presented to the FSA Board , March 2008 http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/board/info080302.pdf

[9] Second FAO/WHO Global Forum Of Food Safety Regulators http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/008/ae167e.htm

[10] Based on figures obtained following a Freedom of Information request, April 2008

[11] See http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2008/08/23/100-jobs-go-from-factory-100252-21590182/

[12] See http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/848908.

[13] House of Commons Written Answers http://www.publications.parliament.uk/cgi-bin/newhtml_hl?DB=semukparl&STEMMER=en&WORDS=public%20analyst&ALL=&ANY=&PHRASE=%22public%20analyst%20%22&CATEGORIES=&SIMPLE=&SPEAKER=&COLOUR=red&STYLE=s&ANCHOR=90126w0051.htm_spnew6&URL=/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090126/text/90126w0051.htm#90126w0051.htm_spnew6 and http://www.publications.parliament.uk/cgibin/newhtml_hl?DB=semukparl&STEMMER=en&WORDS=public%20analyst&ALL=&ANY=&PHRASE=%22public%20analyst%20%22&CATEGORIES=&SIMPLE=&SPEAKER=&COLOUR=red&STYLE=s&ANCHOR=90112w0039.htm_spnew1&URL=/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090112/text/90112w0039.htm#90112w0039.htm_spnew1.

[14] A summary of samples reported in West Yorkshire in the quarter to December 2008 can be found on the WYJS website http://www.wyjs.org.uk/wyjs%20committee%20reports/aats/020209/final-agenda-public.pdf , page three onwards

[15] The FSA published a study of samples submitted to Public Analysts in 2000-01 http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/samplesanalysts.pdf

[16] Report of the Sudan I Review Panel. FSA, July 2007 (Recommendation 5) http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/sudanreview.pdf

[17] Changes in food and drink advertising and promotion to children. A report outlining the changes in the nature and balance of food and drink advertising and promotion to children, from January 2003 to December 2007. Department of Health, October 2008. Section 1 - Overall food and drink advertising. See http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_089129