The highest risk businesses could miss one of their inspections to catch-up with local authority backlogs due to the Coronavirus pandemic, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Food hygiene intervention frequencies for these Category A companies are usually every six months, compared to 12 months for those in the second highest bracket and two years for lower risk businesses. These A-rated premises include businesses with a history of hygiene or compliance problems; those supplying vulnerable groups, such as care homes or children; firms with many customers; and those handling raw meat or involved in processes with a high danger of contamination.

Maria Jennings, director of regulatory compliance, people and Northern Ireland at the FSA, said resetting is the main option.

“Post-COVID we will have to push a reset button as there is no point in pushing the local authorities to try to catch-up with their backlog, it just doesn’t make sense. So for example, a Category A business would be inspected every six months,” she said at the FSA’s Business Committee meeting this past week.

“So it may completely miss one inspection cycle and I think that is something we are just going to have to live with. At worst we believe the businesses will only miss one inspection cycle but then they will start to go to a refreshed and renewed inspection cycle again.”

Increased concerns
In March, when many local authorities catch up on backlogs of due interventions, the COVID-19 pandemic was already impacting resources. During the UK-wide lockdown from March to June, local authorities were advised that remote assessment could be used to determine the need for an onsite visit to deal with public health risks. As restrictions eased in July and the hospitality sector reopened, the FSA asked local authorities to resume onsite interventions prioritizing high-risk and non-compliant businesses.

Maria Jennings

In late August, FSA asked local authorities in England and Northern Ireland to help assess the impact of COVID-19 on resources and the backlog of overdue interventions. Almost half of local authorities in England that responded had redeployed at least half of their food staff to COVID-19 related activities.

This survey and Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) data increased concerns at the FSA about local authorities’ resources to deliver food controls. Of 57 authorities contacted in November, about half reported a further decline in resources for food control activities since the end of August. Key challenges are an increase in new business registrations including existing firms diversifying, sales via social media and other online platforms.

At the start of September, the FSA made clear the controls and priorities it expected local authorities to do as a minimum. However, the meeting heard five local authorities were not able to complete these core activities. Current adjusted requirements for local authorities will be extended until June 2021.

Birmingham City Council and Northamptonshire County Council, which are at the stage of the FSA’s escalation process that involves engagement at chief executive level, have reported they are meeting the minimum expectations.

Avoiding long term damage
The FSA said local authority resources are stretched because of COVID-19 and the situation is unlikely to get better during the winter months. The end of the transition period when the UK leaves the EU will increase pressures further.

Heather Hancock, FSA chair, said the pandemic has given renewed impetus to regulatory reform.

“These snapshot survey results are a cause for concern, and we will be monitoring the situation very carefully over the coming months to see whether the numbers of local authorities who are struggling to meet our minimum requirements increases,” she said.

“The board recognizes how challenging the situation has been for local authorities, and the unprecedented impact of the situation on them. It appreciates their efforts, while being concerned about the strain the system is under.”

Not completing planned interventions at low-risk category sites may not have a significant impact in the short term. However, it would be a cause for concern if deferral of these visits is sustained over an extended period, according to the FSA.

“Continued deferral of interventions at low-risk establishments will, over an extended period, result in a shift toward non-compliance. For food hygiene, if inspections are not undertaken, the integrity of the FHRS will also be compromised in the long term,” according to officials.

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