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
IMPLICATIONS OF REDUCED FUNDING
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.
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."
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.
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
The Local Government Association also told us that
it was making significant efficiency savings and working 'smarter'
to take account of reduced budgets.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Association of Public Analysts (APA) noted that some local
authorities rely entirely on this FSA funding.
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.
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.
They recommend more targeted samplinglooking at particular
products that are "likely to be adulterated".
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 testingand,
of course, some of that was outwith the official control laboratories;
I understand thatour national capacity for doing testing
seemed not to have been overstretched in the process.
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.
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.
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
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
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 fraudfor which
there are sanctions availablebut
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
Contamination of Beef Products, para 33 Back
Ev 92 Back
Q 30; Qqs 32-33 Back
Andrew Jones, Spending Review 2013: Analysis, LGiU policy Briefing,
3 July 2013; HM Treasury, Spending Round 2013. Back
Figures taken from LAEMS data on the FSA website, 2011-12 Back
Q 15 Back
Ev 95 Back
Q 284 Back
Q 10 Back
Q 310 Back
Q 288 Back
Q 310 Back
Q 309 Back
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
Q 684 Back
Defra, Update on Horsemeat Fraud, WMS, 15 April 2013 Back
Qqs 486-88 Back
For example under the Consumer Protection Regulations ,2008 Back