Food Contamination - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

5  Capacity and food supply networks

63. The current system for testing food products, which is "risk-based" and "intelligence-led", did not pick up the contamination.

Local Government capacity


64. As noted in our previous Report the FSA does not itself carry out food sampling. Rather, it is local authorities and trading standards officers who take samples and send these to laboratories for testing. If the results are adverse, it is local authorities who are expected to take appropriate action. The Food Law Code of Practice requires each authority to produce an "annual service plan for enforcement of food standards" in conjunction with the authority's appointed public analyst. The plan should contain a risk assessment of food businesses, the numbers of inspections to be carried out and details of samples to be taken. The code of practice does not specify a minimum sampling rate of any kind.[93]

65. Local authorities therefore play a big role in ensuring our food is as described on the label and is safe to eat. However, as local authority budgets have been cut, so funding for trading standards, and therefore food sampling, has also been reduced. We noted in our last Report comments by the Trading Standards Institute that "cuts in sampling budgets and officers make it difficult to maintain targeted surveillance of the food sector."[94]

66. The FSA told us it was working to limit the impact of cuts effectively:

    Local Authority budget cuts are resulting in a changing landscape for the delivery of food legislation. Enforcement officers are working hard to protect their services and are looking at innovative solutions to continue to provide effective controls through for example shared services and regional coordination, and more effective targeting of resources. There has been concern that local authorities are losing experienced and knowledgeable staff and the FSA continue to maintain a full programme of training and guidance, to ensure that enforcement officers are effective and provide consistent delivery of controls and sanctions.[95]

It also assured us there had been more targeted interventions:

    there have been reductions in the numbers of Local Authority officers working in the areas covered by the FSA. Although the profile of interventions by Local Authority officers has changed, overall compliance in food hygiene levels has continued to improve. In the area of food standards, reductions have been seen in all areas of activity and the numbers of officers deployed in the area of food standards and animal feed have fallen more sharply. Food standards enforcement action, however, rose in the last full reporting year, suggesting an increased focus on targeted interventions.

The Local Government Association also told us that it was making significant efficiency savings and working 'smarter' to take account of reduced budgets.[96]

67. On 26 June the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review announced a 10% reduction to local government for 2015-16. This will be in addition to the 33% reduction in resource spending since 2010. To some extent, this will be mitigated by the transfer of NHS social care to local authorities.[97]

68. We note that food sampling rates are uneven. The data for 2011-12 show that three local authorities carried out no tests at all and 19 authorities failed to report their sampling by the middle of 2013. Among those who reported their sampling, the number of samples per 100 establishments ranged from 0.1 to 83.0. Across the UK an average of 11.4 samples were taken per establishment in 2011-12. However, there was considerable variation across different types of authority, as shown in the table below. The lowest level of sampling per establishment was observed in London boroughs (average of 2.5) and the highest in Northern Ireland (average of 39.5). The table also shows that the average number of samples per establishment has declined since 2009-10 across all types of authority. The decrease is most pronounced in London boroughs and English county councils, with both showing a 55% decrease in the average number.[98]

69. While local authorities have powers to take samples under Section 29 of the Food Act 1990, they are not required to do so: there is no minimum sampling level. Further, sampling budgets are not ring fenced: Local authorities decide on their priorities and allocate what resources they consider to be appropriate to food sampling. The LGA pointed out that local authorities were increasingly sharing the results of their tests on a database which reduced the need for duplicate tests.[99] In addition to local authority budgets, the FSA will provide £1.6 million in 2012-13 for additional food sampling, specified by the FSA, which local authorities may apply for.[100] The Association of Public Analysts (APA) noted that some local authorities rely entirely on this FSA funding.[101]

70. The Local Government Association told us that decisions about what to sample were based on intelligence:

    We do not routinely sample as such; we are very much driven by intelligence to direct us to where samples are taken. Food sampling is done predominantly by looking at intelligence. There are two types of samples we would take. [...] For example, if there was information about problems with a particular product, we would do some sampling to see what the local situation was, or act regionally. [...] We cannot go on a fishing trip in terms of sampling. We have to be quite clear what we are sampling and why we are sampling it, and what the standards are, because sampling is very expensive. We would need to be quite specific with the laboratory what test we would want it to do.[102]

71. The APA suggested this approach was not strategic: there was a "postcode lottery" of sampling and emerging problems, such as adulteration, were not being picked up, because testing was only being done when a business case could be made for a sample based on a tip-off or a previously identified risk.[103] They recommend more targeted sampling—looking at particular products that are "likely to be adulterated".[104] Moreover, because 80% of food was now sold through five big supermarkets, there was a need for greater national direction on sampling to ensure that "if there is a big manufacturing plant manufacturing a meat product that is nationally distributed, there is an adequate inspection sampling regime in place in that plant."[105]

72. Local authorities have a duty to carry out appropriate food testing and must ensure that they do so. We appreciate that each local authority has many objectives and claims on its budget. The Government should be mindful of, and keep an eye on, the likely impact of recent local authority budget cuts on food sampling rates. While we do not recommend setting a statutory minimum sampling level, it is not acceptable that three local authorities have carried out no food sampling at all in the last year. The FSA should more actively oversee the food sampling levels in local authorities and should have the power to compel local authorities to carry out some sampling each year.

73. 80% of food is sold through five supermarkets chains whose food is sourced locally, nationally and internationally. Local authorities must reflect this sourcing pattern in their sampling programme. We recommend a more targeted approach to food sampling, focusing on foods which are likely to be adulterated, even when there is no tip-off about it.

Public Analysts

74. Public analysts analyse samples of food for compliance with legislation on food safety and standards. All food samples taken by local authorities must be submitted to either a food examiner for microbiological examination, or to a public analyst for chemical analysis. However, while microbiological testing for health protection is centrally funded and free at the point of use for local authorities, there are a number of private and public laboratories who provide food (chemical) sampling services to local authorities, for which they must pay.

75. The APA told us it was concerned about the closure of public laboratories. There are currently 18, of which only six are able to carry out DNA testing for horsemeat. The reduction in the number of labs has led to a reduction in the number of trained public analysts (from 41 in 2007 to 30 today). This has reduced the capacity of the remaining laboratories. The APA said that in order to carry out all the additional testing generated by the horsemeat contamination, the six labs had to work extremely hard, take on extra staff and work long hours, and they had struggled to meet deadlines.[106] The final report on the FSA's handling of the incident notes that concerns expressed by industry about laboratory capacity for sampling and analysis were ignored.[107] The Minister said there was no capacity problem and that all the test results had been returned on time:

    actually, despite that unprecedented level of testing, the official control laboratories did not have demonstrable capacity issues. They were able to deal with the influx. When you add to that the industry's own very substantial testing—and, of course, some of that was outwith the official control laboratories; I understand that—our national capacity for doing testing seemed not to have been overstretched in the process. [108]

76. We are concerned about the declining number of public analysts and of public laboratories for carrying out food testing. If they fall much further, food samples will have to be sent abroad for testing. This is likely to result in increased costs and fewer samples being submitted. The Government must keep this under review and ensure there are sufficient, properly trained, public analysts in the UK.

Lessons to be learnt

77. On 15 April David Heath MP announced that there would be a review of the crisis and its implications for the food chain and for the regulatory framework for food safety:

    This will be wide-ranging, to restore and maintain consumer confidence in the food chain and consider the responsibilities of food businesses, and practice throughout the wider food chain, including: audit, testing, food authenticity, food safety and health issues. It will advise us of vulnerabilities within the food chain and its regulatory framework that might be exploited for other fraudulent activity. The Review will also consider any wider implications of the Food Standards Agency Review's findings.[109]

He subsequently announced that the review would be led by Professor Chris Elliott of Queen's University Belfast and would examine the integrity and assurance of food supply networks more widely, including issues which impact upon consumer confidence in the authenticity of food products and how assurances might be strengthened to support consumer confidence. The review will report in 2014.[110]

78. Questions have been raised, in the review of the FSA's response to the crisis, about communication channels and the sharing of sensitive information. As noted earlier, the FSA was made aware of testing for horsemeat in November but did not seek further communication or take any action over the next six weeks.[111]

79. Food supply and production chains are now ever more varied and complex. Those with responsibility for overseeing these systems must adapt their approaches accordingly. The FSA must ensure information is shared with its counterparts in the EU and with the devolved Administrations in the UK. The level of testing which has been undertaken in the last six months is unprecedented and cannot continue. The FSA will only be able to promote public confidence in its role as regulator of the food industry if it builds open communication channels to share information and intelligence with other bodies early on. It should not in future consider it acceptable to wait six weeks for a final confirmation of adulteration from one of our closest neighbours before acting itself.

80. The consumer organisation Which? has also raised questions about changes to labelling regulations which we have not had time to explore in this Report. It argues that the Government is proposing to decriminalise food labelling violations. This refers to a Government proposal, still under consultation, to replace offences for non-food safety breaches of the regulations with 'Improvement Notices' (IN), with criminal sanctions available where the terms of the IN are not met. This should not reduce the Government's capacity to tackle food fraud—for which there are sanctions available[112]—but it is designed to enable enforcement officers to deal with mislabelling without recourse to the courts, the aim being to improve labelling rather than criminalise businesses which may have inadvertently breached rules in minor ways

81. Which? has also commented on a proposal to remove the Quantitative Ingredient Declarations (QUID) on meat products sold loose (in butchers, farmers' markets and delicatessens, for example). The Government is also consulting on this proposal and will announce its decision in the summer.

82. While our Report does not focus on labelling regulations, any changes to these must be considered in the light of the recent horsemeat contamination incident, respecting the results of public consultation and taking account of the significant reduction in consumer confidence in both supply chains and the ability of the food industry to respond effectively to food scares as a result of the contamination of beef products. These issues should be considered as part of the Government's own review of the integrity and assurance of food supply networks and any decisions on legislation should await the final report on food supply networks.

93   Ev 98 Back

94   Contamination of Beef Products, para 33 Back

95   Ev 92 Back

96   Q 30; Qqs 32-33 Back

97   Andrew Jones, Spending Review 2013: Analysis, LGiU policy Briefing, 3 July 2013; HM Treasury, Spending Round 2013. Back

98   Figures taken from LAEMS data on the FSA website, 2011-12 Back

99   Q 15 Back

100   Ev 95 Back

101   Q 284 Back

102   Q 10  Back

103   Q 310 Back

104   Q 288 Back

105   Q 310 Back

106   Q 309 Back

107   Professor Pat Troop, Review of FSA response to the incident of contamination of beef products with horse and pork meat and DNA, 28 June 2013 Back

108   Q 684 Back

109   Defra, Update on Horsemeat Fraud, WMS, 15 April 2013 Back

110 Back

111   Qqs 486-88 Back

112   For example under the Consumer Protection Regulations ,2008 Back

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Prepared 16 July 2013