Decline in food standards interventions likely to end

Out-Law News | 07 Dec 2020 | 4:34 pm | 2 min. read

Food standards interventions designed to ensure that food meets the requirements of food standards law and to protect the public from contamination of foodstuffs and confusing or misleading labelling, continue to decline in England and Wales, according to official figures. 

The Food Standards Agency's (FSA's) annual report on local authority food law enforcement revealed that the total percentage of interventions decreased from 40.8% in 2018/19 to 39.7% in 2019/20 across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the figures for England alone showing a decrease from 36.8% to 35.7%.

Under food regulations, food businesses are responsible for ensuring that their food is safe, that its quality is what consumers would expect, and that it is not labelled in a false or misleading way. Regulation is designed to help protect consumers from unacceptable risk. Food safety controls, including hygiene controls, address risks from microbiological, chemical, physical, radiological or allergen contamination that could render the food unsafe for human consumption. Food standard controls, which include safety, composition and nutrition standards, cover labelling on allergen content, food composition or the nutritional quality of food.

Food standard interventions are part of the system for ensuring that food meets the requirements of food standards law and are designed to monitor, support and increase food law compliance within a food establishment. Local authorities are charged with maintaining and implementing a food standards interventions programme covering all establishments within their area. 

"The decrease in interventions marks a trend seen over the last few years," said food safety law expert Kevin Bridges of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law. "A review in 2018 provided evidence that significant and radical change is needed to address some of the failings in the current delivery model for food standards. The review noted in particular a general lack of resource in terms of food standards enforcement capability, with considerable variation in levels of resource available and differences in approach and delivery. Modernisation and standardisation are required, using technology to bridge gaps in resourcing and ensuring consistency of delivery."

"A pilot study to help establish a new delivery framework for local authorities was due to start in 2020 but was postponed until 2021 due to the impact of Covid-19. It will be interesting to see how this new framework impacts on statistics for future years, but given the high profile nature of food standards failings, for example, the horse meat scandal, the regulator will no doubt be hoping to stop the general downward trend in such safety measures, with more interventions to be expected," Bridges said.

Food hygiene interventions are also part of the system for ensuring that food meets the requirements of food hygiene law. Figures for food hygiene interventions, also published by the FSA, showed a decline from 86.0% to 85.3% too. 

Despite the decrease in due interventions, local authorities are investigating an increasing number of food standards and food hygiene complaints, with figures for England revealing a 5.2% increase from 61,191 in 2018/19 to 64,397. Formal enforcement action was taken against a significantly increased (44%) number of establishments in England for food standards failings in 2019/20 than in the previous year.

Those found to be in breach of food law regulations will be sentenced under the Sentencing Council's guideline for corporate manslaughter, health and safety and food safety and food hygiene offences. As with corporate manslaughter and health and safety offences, this follows a stepped approach, including assessing the offence category, looking at levels of culpability and harm, examining the size of the organisation to be sentenced, making adjustments on the basis of proportionality, allowing for discounts for guilty pleas and assistance given and taking account of ancillary orders and the principle of totality.  Fines of up to £3 million can be imposed and for individuals up to two years imprisonment.

"Organisations should not be complacent," Bridges said. "Food safety interventions are likely to increase and the consequences of being found guilty of failings can be profound, not just for the food establishment concerned."