UK Food Standards Agency wants lighter touch on inspections

Proposals that some UK supermarkets and restaurants may be exempted from government inspections have raised concerns that the move could open the door to food fraudsters.

A pilot project that will allow 'trusted' retailers to bypass the usual inspection requirement - four years after the horsemeat scandal gripped the UK - has been described as "scandalous" by Prof Tim Lang of City University, a food policy expert, who told The Grocer that it is a sign of weakness at the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The FSA insists however that its new approach will move away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to regulating the 600,000 food business in the UK. That is needed, it says, because "business innovation has outstripped the way regulation has always been done and we need to keep pace with this new world to stop people being put at risk."

The agency also argues that a risk-based approach will allow it to focus resources on establishments with a poor track record, while those which have a history of compliance with standards will be able to use third-party audits and certification schemes and be exempted from site visits from trading standards officers.

That's about the extent of the detail available on the new proposals, however, which will be assessed in a three-month pilot project involving supermarket giant Tesco and pub and restaurant chain Mitchells & Butlers.

The horsemeat scare brought the issues of food fraud into the spotlight, and revealed just how complex the food supply chain has become, as well as how vulnerable. It still very much in the minds of the public as well, with a recent survey by consumer organisation Which revealing that 55 per cent of the UK public are worried incidents similar to the horsemeat scandal could happen again.

Moreover, more than 80 per cent of those polled said they would be concerned if the frequency of inspections was reduced.

“I would be worried that it could open the door for food contamination and food fraud. And I still think we need a system of inspectors from the FSA on the ground to make the system safe,” said Mike Bromley, founder of the food-testing firm Genon Laboratories, in a Telegraph article.

Sue Davies, chief policy adviser on food issues at Which, stopped short of commenting directly on the pilot project, but told that it is clear changes are needed in the way food quality is monitored and enforced in the UK.

"With the system under strain, the FSA review is critical in order to ensure an effective and sustainable system of food controls," she said.

"We need a more strategic approach that better matches skills, expertise and resources to the nature of the risk, while ensuring that consumers can still have confidence in the independence of the system."

The FSA's recently appointed new chair - Heather Hancock - gave some key insights into the challenges faced by the agency at a parliamentary reception last week.

"The safety and standards system in place today hasn’t kept pace with the sector we oversee. It hasn't kept pace with technology; globalisation; the changing economics of food business," she said.

"Whilst the current system isn't yet broken, there are tell-tale cracks. It's designed around visits from inspectors bearing clipboards, which might have been enough 20, 30 years ago but it isn't now.

"We’re relying too much on visual inspection when many critical food risks can't be seen by the naked eye. It's resource intensive, and it will be unsustainable before too long."

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