Thousands of small and micro food businesses, including independent pubs, could close if the Food Standard Agency’s (FSA) Regulating Our Future blueprint published on 19 July, goes ahead in its current form.
The warning comes from food safety consultancy Food Solutions, whose co-director, Bob Salmon, represents small and medium-sized food businesses on UEAPME, the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises in Europe, which incorporates 67 member organisations from
The FSA says the blueprint is intended to ‘improve’ the way it delivers regulatory control in food post-Brexit, “prioritising improvement where there has been no modernisation of the system in recent years and where it is most needed”.
Fewer inspections for some
The organisation’s blueprint covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Food Standards Scotland is spearheading a similar initiative.
The net effect is that both the FSA and Food Standards Scotland envisage a lighter regulatory touch, including fewer, if any, inspections for big groups, such as large pub chains that have strong audited centralised processes.
The blueprint says the agency will be able to analyse the factors most closely correlated with poor food hygiene outcomes – some of these might not be about food itself, but might indicate poor management culture, which is linked to generally low levels of compliance with any regulation or legal requirement.
“For some businesses, the risk will be so low that they do not merit inspection. For others, inspection could be more intrusive and rigorous than they have experienced until now,” the FSA says.
“To ensure every business continues to be in the right category, we will seek confirmation of any changes in activity, so we can judge whether their risk
rating has moved.”
The agency’s blueprint says the new regime will be “firm and quick” in dealing with businesses that “aren’t meeting their responsibilities”, including “additional sanctions” that could complement existing enforcement tools to encourage “a quick return to the right behaviour… ”.
Salmon and Food Solutions co-director John Golton-Davis both believe Regulating Our Future is about saving local government money and passing inspection costs on to business.
Most local authorities already charge for ‘re-inspections’, which businesses can request when they have done something wrong and want to correct it. Golton-Davis says the City of London Corporation, for example, charges £220 for each re-inspection.
But now the FSA is looking at making businesses shoulder the costs of all inspections, he says, as is Food Standards Scotland.
Foods Standards Scotland said it would consider the future costs and charges in relation to the delivery of official control inspections as part of its Regulatory Strategy programme in more detail.
“However, any options, as outlined in the Regulatory Strategy, will be developed and based on the fundamental principle that all food businesses should contribute to the costs of regulatory controls,” a spokeswoman says.
This approach supports the overall strategy objective of rewarding compliant businesses and incentivising future compliance for those food businesses that currently fall short of expected standards, she says.
Salmon says charging is “a recipe for corruption” among unscrupulous inspectors because of the temptation to find something wrong in the knowledge that the more times they inspect, the more fees they generate.
Businesses must meet costs
Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations (FLVA) operations director Martin Caffrey suspects inspections and re-inspections would become a profit centre. “It should not be a profit centre,” he insists. “At the very worst, it should wipe its face.”
But it is still early days. As Nina Purcell, the FSA director leading the Regulating Our Future campaign, points out, the agency had not yet started to work on the detail of how cost would be brought into the new system.
“What we do know is that businesses should meet the costs of regulation, but the costs should be no more than they need to be and be proportionate to the type of business.”
Her words are similar to the statement Food Standards Scotland issued to The Morning Advertiser. “These costs should be no more than they need to be, and non-compliance should cost more than compliance and should not be supported by public funding.”
But what wording such as “no more than they need to be” and “proportionate” means in practice remains to be seen. Caffrey says: “It’s like asking ‘how much is your steak pie?’ [and replying] ‘It’s as much as it needs to be’.”
The FSA says in Regulating Our Future that it hopes freeing up local authority resources through its new approach would mean councils could do “even more to support businesses in the food sector with advice and guidance”.
British Hospitality Association (BHA) food safety adviser Lisa Ackerley says the trade association was working on the development of a catering scheme based on the BHA Catering Industry Guide, which would be accessible to all inspection bodies and businesses.
“Businesses are already paying local authorities for pre-inspections when setting up for the first time and for revisits for food hygiene rating scoring.
“The FSA has said that “businesses should meet the costs of regulation, which should be no more than they need to be” so it is likely that in the future further costs may be associated with enforcement. The BHA will be monitoring this situation carefully to ensure that our members are not severely affected.”
A voice for UK F&B companies
A spokesman for the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) says: “We will certainly be pushing to ensure that any new system of regulation is proportionate, especially given the diversity of food businesses across the UK.”
While the BBPA did not want small businesses burdened with unnecessary costs, it was important to ensure that the principles of food safety were maintained, “and we need to support businesses to understand how to comply with these requirements and responsibilities”, the spokesman explains.
Star Pubs & Bars property and strategy director Chris Moore urges that pubs should not be “overburdened with regulatory costs on top of the heavy taxation they already shoulder”.
The FSA says it will introduce more options for the ways businesses can prove they are “doing the right thing” including “an expanded, formal role
for the private assurance schemes already operating in food safety and standards… ”.
Food Solutions, however, considers the implications of the blueprint are so serious that it held a preliminary meeting to discuss how it could formulate a campaign to protect the interests of small food businesses, including independent pubs.
Golton-Davis is worried about how to engage and protect small businesses when Brexit kicks in and the UK has no representatives on UEAPME.
“Our aim is to give a voice to all the food businesses in the UK – not just the big boys. We want to get trade publications involved, food exhibition organisers – getting the message out via social media, a quarterly hard-copy bulletin. The FSA is in denial.
“Regulating Our Future is a smokescreen. They are making the right noises but, in reality, my opinion is that it’s a cost-saving exercise. How can we make inspection cheaper? Or how can we get the small businesses to pay for it?
“We are putting together a plan and are going to bring together all the businesses that are not represented. They’ve got to have a voice.”
The FSA, meanwhile, plans to bring in an “enhanced” food business registration system and, pending legislation, a “permit to trade”.
It says this would enable it to capture everyone before they start and help them set off on the right foot.
Fear for independent operators
The FSA also plans to make the display of food hygiene ratings mandatory, as they are in Wales.
Food Standards Scotland says its own policy review will include “full stakeholder engagement with industry and other stakeholders, including
consideration of any potential impacts to small and medium-sized businesses in Scotland”.
The intentions of both bodies, however, could spell real problems for small independent operators. It appears they want to create a hostile environment for those not sticking to the rules, with businesses being made to foot the bill. In particular, however, what is sticking in the craw of many, is the distinct possibility that charges could be imposed for standard inspections and not just check-ups after infringements or requested visits.
Food Solutions says it needs small businesses to be vocal about what the new regime could mean for them.
“If we do not have that backing, all small food businesses will get what they deserve,” says Golton-Davis.