Further budget cuts to local government have the potential to wipe out operators’ hard work in raising the profile of pub food and could result in multimillion-pound fines, experts have warned following the release of a harrowing report into the state of food law enforcement by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Consumers’ health is at risk as a result of budget cuts, which are spreading the abilities of environmental health officers (EHOs) thin, the FSA said in its local authority food law enforcement annual report last month.
Fewer inspections will, inevitably, reduce the safety of some food operations and could damage consumer trust in pub food, policy and technical adviser at The Institute of Food Safety, Integrity and Protection Eoghan Daly told the Publican’s Morning Advertiser.
The severity of local government budget cuts on food safety in pubs would depend on whether a business was part of a larger chain — with access to a big support network — or an independent business with no support network, he added.
“What’s really important is consumer confidence in the sector as a whole,” says Daly. “The impact on individual businesses is hard to determine but, if further cuts are made, it has the potential to set [the hard work carried out by operators] back.
“Businesses need customers. Customers will vote with their feet if hygiene problems occur. There have been several recent examples of serious pest infestations in food businesses and it’s unlikely that such public exposure would increase trade. If standards are not maintained, all will suffer and [certain] businesses might cease to exist.”
£250,000 in damages
Daly’s and the FSA’s warnings came ahead of a court case in Edinburgh, where a restaurant was forced to pay a customer £250,000 in damages following a campylobacter food poisoning incident involving a chicken liver salad.
There was previously a cap on fines for businesses at the centre of food poisoning cases. However, it was lifted earlier this month following the publication of the Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences guidelines.
As a result of the new sentencing guidelines and cuts to environmental health budgets, operators will have to make more of an effort to put food safety and hygiene at the top of their business agenda, warned food safety and compliance specialist Acoura.
Dr Lisa Ackerley, who is a food safety adviser to Acoura and the British Hospitality Association, says: “The new guidelines will mean a considerable increase in the level of fines, particularly in cases where the consequences of poor safety have been or could have been severe.
“Damages in the US have been even higher, with the record of a $15.6m (£10.7m) payout for one victim of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993 and increased awards could soon become commonplace in the UK, as more personal injury lawyers are taking on the cause of victims.”
The new guidelines were long overdue and highlighted the responsibility of every caterer to safeguard and protect their customers, Ackerley adds.
Stuart Kelly, EHO and managing director at Acoura, says: “The days of the EHOs making random spot checks at food outlets are long gone — there just aren’t the resources available.
“The responsibility now sits firmly on the shoulders of the caterer and should be the number one priority.”
More advice would be to hand soon, Ackerley adds. New food hygiene guidelines, which are expected to be published this June, will provide pubs with more advice on how to keep check of and comply with food law.
Budget cuts not an issue
However, one expert claims cuts to local authorities’ budgets were not an issue. Steve Osborn, consultant for food and beverage at the Aurora Ceres Partnership, says: “The number of businesses broadly compliant with hygiene standards has been on an annual increase during the past five years.
“This has resulted in greater awareness of the issues. It has also resulted in a raising of the bar for the standard across the industry. These [budget cuts] should not affect consumer safety.”
It is time for the sector to accept cuts were coming and to become self-reliant and not use them as an excuse to let standards slip, he adds. There is a lot of information available to businesses and only those that do not keep up will suffer. “The reality is that the sector needs to look to develop independence of the local authority,” says Osborn.
Yet, a spokesman from the British Beer & Pub Association warned that bringing in outside help could incur expense.
In light of ongoing local government budget cuts and changing guidelines, he says: “Pubs need to consider whether they need any outside help if there is an interruption to the flow of information and assistance from the inspection authorities.
“This brings potential costs, which is always a concern for small businesses, and some premises won’t have easy access to the kind of business support and training needed.”
Meanwhile, read a full examination of the FSA’s report into the state of food law enforcement.