Wales may see the introduction of a “food police” force in what looks set to be a huge overhaul of the current food inspection system.
On Wednesday, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) agreed to consider transferring responsibility for food safety from local councils to alternative organisations.
The decision follows calls from First Minister Carwyn Jones to improve the effectiveness of the inspection regime.
Local authorities fail to deliver
His concerns are shared by Sharon Mills, the mother of five-year-old Mason Jones who died from the E.coli outbreak in 2008. “Local authorities are facing funding cuts and food safety will be one of the areas that will suffer,” she told WalesOnline. “Bringing food inspection duties under one roof will also ensure one standard level of protection rather than varying standards between local authorities.”
A statement read to the FSA board meeting in London on Tuesday, said:
“There is a growing body of evidence that the current complex and inconsistent delivery model, coupled with declining resources at local authority level and uncertainty about good performance being sustained or poor performance improving amongst food businesses, that the current model does not give the FSA evidence or assurance that delivery is effective. It is now right and timely to undertake a review of the current delivery model and explore and develop an alternative delivery model that is more nationally consistent and involves four national bodies.”
Mr Jones has commissioned the FSA to assess the food inspection process in Wales with a view to ascertaining the demand for different arrangements.
Critics attack notion of ‘centralised control’
However, some question whether transferring responsibility for food safety from local authorities to alternative organisations will actually lead to an improvement in food hygiene.
Despite welcoming the review, Maria Battle, Senior Director of Consumer Focus Wales, criticised its focus on delivery method and emphasised the need to reduce food-related illness.
“Consumers don’t care about models of delivery. What consumers care about is being protected from food-related illness,” she said. “Unfortunately in recent years the number of people dying from food bugs in the UK has not decreased but has remained steady at around 500 per year. The FSA needs to ensure that any change to the way food law enforcement is carried out leads to fewer people getting sick.”
Meanwhile, the idea of taking responsibility for food safety away from councils came under staunch criticism from Julie Barratt, director of the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health in Wales.
“We believe a particular strength of local delivery is the ability to develop trust and good working relationships with local businesses, particularly the small independent businesses that form the majority of the food sector,” she began. “It seems doubtful that such relationships could be fully replicated with more centralised delivery methods. We would not wish to see public protection diminished by the use of inadequately skilled and less than competent enforcement staff.”
The Assembly Government said a full report will be published next month.
Speaking on behalf of the Welsh Local Government Association, Keith Evans said, “Ensuring food safety is of paramount importance to every council and we are confident that the review findings will positively highlight the significant amount of work undertaken by environmental health officers and trading standards officers and their important roles in protecting public health in Wales.”