Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Out-Law Analysis 4 min. read

FSA proposals aim to drive improvements in UK food safety and hygiene

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A recent consultation published by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) puts risk management practices, food safety culture and sustained compliance at the centre of its proposals for a modernised food hygiene delivery model.

The 12 week consultation seeks views on its proposals in four areas:

  • a modernised food hygiene intervention rating scheme;
  • an updated risk-based approach to the timescales for initial official controls of new food establishments;
  • increased flexibility on the methods and techniques of official controls that can be used to risk rate an establishment, including the appropriate use of remote assessment; and
  • extending the activities that officers, such as Regulatory Support Officers, who do not hold a ‘suitable qualification’ for food hygiene can, if competent, undertake.

New food hygiene intervention rating scheme

As with the current food hygiene intervention rating scheme, food establishments will be given a risk profile based on an 'inherent risk' and a 'compliance and confidence in management' assessment. However, the proposals aim to ensure there is a better understanding of the level of risk a food business poses, by amending the rating process and specifically including consideration of matters such as ‘food safety culture’. 

Individual scores would be attributed to each 'inherent risk' and 'compliance and confidence in management' element. These scores would then be averaged and rounded to give the overall 'inherent risk' and 'compliance and confidence in management' scores, which in turn will inform the local authorities of the minimum frequency of official controls.

Safeguards are proposed which are designed to ensure that establishments scoring poorly in certain areas, including food hygiene and safety, would be automatically subject to increased controls. Crucially it is proposed that guidance is issued to assist local authorities to understand what the differing elements of the risk profile look like in practice.

Risk-based approach to the timescales

On timescales for completion of initial and due official controls, the current system in essence requires an inspection of a new food business establishment to take place within 28 days of registration or when the local authority becomes aware that it is operating, whichever is the sooner. Whilst there is some limited flexibility built into this, it is felt to be unnecessarily prescriptive and might divert limited resources from the highest risk establishments to those at the lowest end. 

Instead, a new risk-based approach to the timescales for undertaking initial and due official controls is proposed. Local authorities will be able to consider all relevant data, information, and intelligence to determine the likely 'inherent risk' of an establishment.  This will include information provided at registration and collected through communications with the food business operator as well as other data, information, or intelligence about the business, for example, a website, software, or local knowledge.

Competent-but-unqualified officers could assist in ingathering this information, although the decision as to the anticipated 'inherent risk' would be made by an authorised officer who is “competent to undertake official controls”. 

Official controls

The current system is prescriptive as to the methods and techniques of official controls that can be used by local authorities and are based on the risk of an establishment. Those with the highest risk rating must receive an inspection, partial inspection or audit. 

The proposed development provides that local authorities may choose which official controls are used in any given situation, so long as they are effective and appropriate in the circumstances. A list is provided which includes an examination of the establishment’s food hygiene and safety controls:

  • an inspection of food at any stage of production, processing and distribution; 
  • cleaning and maintenance products and processes;
  • an assessment of good manufacturing and good hygiene practices and procedures; and
  • interviews with the food business operator, their staff as well as “any other activity required to identify non-compliance”. 

Local authorities are given a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered in determining which methods and techniques of official controls are effective and appropriate. This includes the risk profile of the establishment; its track record and relevant data, information or intelligence gathered in relation to it.

Remote assessments

Although some limited use of remote assessment was used during the Covid-19 pandemic, local authorities have not been able to risk rate an establishment without a physical onsite official control taking place. The consultation proposes the use of ‘remote official controls’ to verify compliance with relevant legislation as well as to support and inform a physical official control. For example, examining food safety management system documentation away from the establishment before using inspection and audit methods and techniques onsite. It will be for the local authority to determine if the use of remote official controls is effective and appropriate. 

A remote official control can include:

  • a telephone discussion;
  • a desk-based examination of relevant documentation;
  • reviewing video and photographic evidence;
  • video-conferencing; and
  • examination of websites and any other digital tools.

The consultation proposes that the default position should continue to be that prior notification of official controls is not given. However, it adds that local authorities should be given discretion to consider how best to achieve the overriding aim of ensuring compliance with food law i.e. whether physical or remote official controls are appropriate and whether prior notice is necessary and justified. 

At a time when resources are increasingly stretched, the consultation contains some well-reasoned proposals. As ever, much will depend on the detail and the promised guidance. It is important that efforts to modernise and future proof the system are not made at the expense of the current high food safety standards.

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