The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has set out a plan of how local authorities can get back to food hygiene and standards work after dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

The recovery plan for local authorities proposes a restart to the regulatory system for the highest risk businesses and providing greater flexibility for lower risk firms.

During the pandemic, the FSA let local authorities defer planned interventions, particularly for low risk premises.

Ruth Hussey, FSA board interim chair, said: “The board recognizes how challenging the situation has been for local authorities, and the unprecedented impact of the situation on them. But it’s important the focus must now be shifted back onto the food hygiene and the food standards system.”

Reset with inspections missed
Highest risk places may have missed up to three planned interventions. The FSA previously acknowledged these businesses could miss one inspection.

The 1,500 highest risk establishments in Category A for food hygiene should be inspected every six months. The aim is for all sites in this bracket to have had an onsite visit by March 2022. There are 4,000 outlets in Category A for food standards and they should have an intervention every 12 months. The plan is for all sites in this category to get an onsite intervention by June 2022.

The recovery plan anticipates that urgent reactive food safety work will increase in the short term as restrictions in the hospitality sector are lifted; planned interventions for food hygiene and standards will be more complex and take longer because of COVID measures and where compliance standards have dropped, the levels of follow-up and enforcement action to address risks to public health and consumer protection will be greater.

Michael Jackson, head of regulatory compliance at the FSA, said the plan was about ensuring local authorities return diverted resources back to the food teams.

“It is about prioritizing those businesses that pose the greatest risk to public health and consumer protection. We recognize risk may have changed over the course of the pandemic so we expect local authorities to react to information and intelligence that suggests the risk is now greater and not be constrained by the risk categories that businesses were in based on when they were last inspected before the pandemic kicked in,” he said.

Jackson said councils are already starting to do planned interventions where resources permit and are not waiting until advice is issued.

“Every authority is starting from a different place in terms of the resources available and the particular challenges they face at the local level. The timelines for achieving the milestones are what we consider to be the maximum acceptable and where resources permit local authorities to go faster in getting through the risk categories we expect them to do so,” he said.

Bringing back expertise
Local authority resources have been, and in many cases still are, diverted to work related to reducing the spread of COVID-19. Certain councils are reporting hygiene standards have reduced in some cases since onset of the pandemic.

Other issues are existing businesses re-opening, many after prolonged closure, while others are diversifying to adapt to changes in the market. The numbers of new food businesses have also significantly increased and the risks associated with them remain largely unknown.

Data from local authorities for 2020-21 up to March 31 shows the impact of the pandemic on their workload.

“From our initial analysis we can see that in Northern Ireland, 19 percent of the resource that would normally be dedicated to food hygiene and 14 percent for food standards is still on COVID. So a significant amount of resource has returned in that country. In England, 55 percent of resource for food hygiene is still on COVID and 43 percent for food standards. In Wales, 66 percent of food hygiene resource and 62 percent of food standards resources is still on COVID,” said Jackson.

“Looking at the wider activities we know local authorities are engaged in, as we move through the first phase of the plan it is reasonable to expect that further resource will come back. When the initial workload around hospitality reopening has been addressed that will have a positive impact. Where we can see a lack of progress or if local authorities are not meeting our expectations they will be expected to notify us and we will engage with them to see how we can support them. The issue of this is the minimum expectation will be clearly emphasized.”

Remote audit plans
Remote assessment may be used to help determine the need for onsite intervention at low-risk premises and in some cases for food hygiene rating scheme (FHRS) requested re-visits in England.

FSA will use FHRS data to monitor on a quarterly basis the numbers of businesses awaiting inspection, numbers of new ratings being published, and levels of compliance.

Jackson said authorities can use remote assessment as they have been through the pandemic.

“The whole issue of remote assessment is one that has taken on a great degree of interest, this impacts not only the local authority world but also in relation to operations through the audit activities carried out by colleagues and then wider interest around the use of remote assessment in private assurance schemes that we recognize,” he said.

“We have established a working group on the role of remote assessment at all levels, how we can make the best use of that in such a way not to compromise the official control regime particularly where inspections are supposed to be unannounced and we will be providing further guidance to local authorities on that and looking to maximize the use of remote assessment where it is the right thing to do.”

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