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UK regulator reviews inspection, enforcement policies

By Ahmed ElAmin , 19-Dec-2006

Local authorities in the UK will get new inspection and regulatory powers in the future, thecountry's food agency said yesterday in announcing a review of the current system.

The new regulatory strategy would give some leeway to plants that follow approved safetypractices and had good records, and increased surveillance of those that regulators classify as highrisk, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA). In the UK local authorities are responsible forenforcing food laws and for inspecting plants.

"The agency is looking to introduce fundamental changes to the whole approach to food law enforcement by localauthorities," the FSA stated in outlining the policy review. " The aim is to provide them withflexible interventions for improving business compliance, enabling them to focus resources moreeffectively."

 

The proposed changes follow the investigation last year of Euro Freeze, a Northern Ireland coldstore operation that allegedly was involved in the illicit repackaging, re-labelling anddistribution of meat throughout the EU. In August this year, a UK court condemned the meat from EuroFreeze as having illegal health labeling and ordered the destruction of 254 pallets.

 

A review of the local authorities role in the investigation found lapses in enforcement. Sincethen the FSA has started funding training courses for inspectors and reviewing the regulatorysystem.

 

In the outline of the review published yesterday the FSA said the changes will include beefed upinspections for businesses that have had problems in the past, the giving of more advice on how tocomply with legislation, and increased fines for companies that breach the law.

 

Businesses that have good food safety records will be considered as "less risky" andcould benefit from a scaled down regulatory oversight.

 

The policy review will focus on improving business compliance with the UK's food safety laws, theFSA stated. Enforcement will be based on an assessment of risks posed by a business to publichealth. Local authorities will gain more flexibility in the approaches they can take with specificbusinesses through an expanded the range of interventions they can make to prevent a food safetyincident from occurring.

 

Such flexibility in approach includes alternatives to full inspections of manufacturing plants.The flexibility will allow local authorities to focus resources and actions on those cases that present thehighest risk, the FSA stated.

 

The new regulatory system will cover all food establishments, including food producing farms and those subject toapproval. Under the sweeping revisions to the system, the FSA wants inspectors to place moreemphasis on food safety management practices, their confidence in a company's management, and theplant's track record.

 

It will also place more emphasis on food safety management practices at a particular plan, thelocal authority's confidence in that management, and the track record of performance by the management of the food business.

 

The FSA plans to issue a full consultation on the review in early 2007, with the new policy completed by June2007. The FSA then plans to published a revised code of practice and practice guidance by August2007. The FSA plans to complete the policy review by December 2007. The new system will beintroduced in phases during 2007 and 2008, in parallel with a new enforcement policy.

 

The review will include an examination of the current monitoring system, which gathers details of localauthorities' enforcement actions. The FSA aims to make the system simpler and easier to use.A consultation on the initial proposals was published on 31 July this year.

 

Under the UK's system, the FSA is the overall food regulator, with local authorities responsiblefor inspection and enforcement of the law, guided by the FSA's code of conduct.. However, thesupervision of cold storage operations, such as Euro Freeze, is normally undertaken by Department ofAgriculture and Rural Development (DARD) veterinary inspectors acting on behalf of the FSA.

 

The proposed changes are part of the FSA's bid to simplify its enforcement of UK law. Last week,the FSA outlined plans to cut red tape in a number of areas by simplifying regulations such as thoserelating to hygiene, by using communications technology more effectively, by removing somerequirements, and by reducing unnecessary paperwork and administrative burdens.

 

The raft of proposed changes follows recommendations by the the UK's Hampton Review of regulationin the UK. The review found that national regulators send out 2.6 million forms for businesses to complete everyyear.

 

A recent NatWest survey claimed that a business with two employees spends over six hours permonth per employee on government regulation and paperwork, while a business with over 50 employees spendstwo hours per employee.

 

Survey data showed that businesses are very concerned about the cumulative burden of regulationand that the burden remains one of the principal challenges of business.

 

The FSA, one of the agencies under review, is not an inspection and enforcement body itself. It has an executive agency, the Meat HygieneService (MHS), which inspects abattoirs, slaughterhouses and meat cutting plants according to the requirements of EU lawand specific UK requirements in relation to BSE controls.

 

Local authorities carry out most of the UK's food standards and safety inspections, with theagency monitoring them and running an audit programme. Under the system trading standards officers (TSO)carry out food standards inspections. Environmental Health Officers (EHO) carry out food hygiene inspections.

 

The FSA currently has 610 employees. There are about 1,500 EHOs and 500 TSOs working on food law enforcement. Another 430 staff work for the MHS.

 

County and unitary authorities employ the TSOs, who are professionally qualified local government officials.

 

Trading standards authorities in Great Britain took 3,905 cases to court in the 2002-3year, and issued 9,000 written warnings. Meanwhile EHOs undertook 10,800 prosecutions or formal cautions inthe same period. A total of the EHO's 1,603 prosecutions related to food safety issues.

 

The Hampton review also recommended that the government increase the maximum amount magistratescan fine companies for breaches of the law.

 

"Fines set at such low levels are no deterrent - indeed, a rational company in any of thecases highlighted would have been acting to its economic advantage by breaking the law,"the review concluded.

 

The review noted that the FSA has even prosecuted some serious food offences as conspiracy to defraud, because they consider thepenalties handed

 

down under food safety legislation as ineffective. The review recommended that some fines should beset administratively rather than through the courts.

 

The current FSA codes of practice provide guidance to food authorities on the frequency and nature of inspections, based on risk, to be carried out to

 

assess the food hygiene and food standards controls of premises. Each food authority must produce a scheme to determinethe minimum frequency of inspection based on the evaluation of potential risk.

 

For premises approved under product specific hygiene regulations inspection frequencies are determinedcentrally. Other food premises must be inspected for hygiene at intervals between six months and twoyears, based on risk ratings.

 

Local authorities have the flexibility, however, to develop alternative enforcement strategies for lower-risk premises, which may include no physical

 

inspection.

 

 

EHOs and TSOs have the power to prohibit the use of premises, equipment, or particular procedures if they think that health is being put atrisk. They can

 

also seize and detain food that is not fit for human consumption.