The future of food safety standards
Jatinder Paul warns that cuts to the Food Standard Agency's budget and lack of compulsory food hygiene ratings could leave consumers at risk
The public health arena is increasingly coming under the spotlight, both in the media and in the legal world. Consumers place their faith in food manufacturers and retailers, expecting food products to be, at the very least, suitable for consumption. Indeed, that is a legal requirement.
Bacterial illnesses such as salmonella, campylobacter, and Legionnaires' disease have become all too common over the past decade, affecting millions of people and sometimes causing life-changing long-term symptoms or, in the most serious cases, even death.
The potential seriousness of such infections should not be underestimated, and it is vital that authorities work quickly and thoroughly to identify the cause or causes of any outbreak, and to promptly establish whether there is a wider problem in the way outbreaks have been controlled.
That is why, at a time when cuts to public health budgets are prevalent, news that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is facing further financial constraints is extremely concerning.
Budget cuts could hinder the important work of the FSA and local authorities in monitoring and improving food hygiene practices, which is cause for concern given that many public health experts believe current regulations, such as the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Food Standards Act 1999, do not go far enough.
We have experience in handling thousands of food safety cases, while campaigning for industry-wide improvements. Some of the cases we have seen recently include the Toby Carvery in Exeter, which had to be closed for cleaning after traces of norovirus affected more than 350 of its diners, some of whom have gone on to develop significant health problems.
In 2014, we were instructed by dozens of people who were caught up in the widely reported national outbreak of salmonella, including the family of Mr Leonard Spiers, who sadly died as a result of consumption of contaminated food at Birmingham's Heartlands Hospital.
Many of those affected were infected with salmonella after consuming contaminated food at the Real China restaurant in Southampton. The source of the outbreak was traced to contaminated eggs produced at the Bayern Ei farm in Bavaria, Germany. Footage later emerged of poor conditions at the German egg producer's farm, and public prosecutors in Germany subsequently launched an investigation in which our public health experts were involved.
Through our work it has become clear that it is vitally important that any cuts brought about by the latest budget announcement do not put the public at risk and do not
hinder the work the FSA has been doing to improve food hygiene standards in the UK in recent years.
According to the latest edition of Food Manufacture, the FSA's budget has fallen by £22m since 2013, and experts believe the cuts may affect the number of inspections of food businesses and investigations into persistent offenders, which would easily lead to a fall in standards.
The November spending review, announced by Chancellor George Osborne in his Autumn Statement, froze the FSA's budget until 2020, which worryingly equates to a £6m cut in real terms. As a result, until further regulation is enacted and public health authorities across the country are given more powers to act on this regulation, consumers need to be educated and supported.
Food hygiene ratings
One of the ways consumers can do this is to check food hygiene ratings, which are indicated by the green and black rating stickers displayed by establishments, although these are not compulsory.
The system is a step in the right direction as it provides information about the standards found by local authority food safety officers when they inspect establishments to check that they are complying with food hygiene laws.
However, the system is not yet mandatory and there is no obligation on every food business to put the stickers on display, so, for now, it is for consumers to apply pressure to businesses by asking about their rating if it is not clearly displayed. Environmental health practitioners have told us that usually it is only the businesses with three stars or more that display their stickers.
As an immediate concern, we would urge the government to make it compulsory for food hygiene ratings to be displayed, no matter what level is achieved. This would force underperforming food businesses to improve their standards, and therefore their ratings, or face the prospect of displaying a low-rating sticker to customers.
Jatinder Paul is an associate and specialist public health lawyer at Irwin Mitchell @irwinmitchell www.irwinmitchell.comTags: