FSA: Trials show industry data can be used to assess compliance

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More work is needed to see how private sector audit data could provide assurance businesses are complying with food law, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The agency has published results of a three month trial as it looks at ways of moving away what it calls a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to regulation that was ‘resource intensive’.

It looked at whether audit data collected by businesses could be used by local authorities to check food hygiene standards and decide ratings.

Feasibility studies involved the retailer Tesco and pub restaurant chain Mitchells & Butlers.

FSA said they showed industry data could be used by enforcement officers to assess compliance of food businesses.

Self-regulation

Nina Purcell, director of regulatory delivery and Wales, said the studies have given an insight to inform current thinking on regulatory reform.

“The studies demonstrated that data from businesses’ own compliance checks could potentially be used to inform the scope, nature and frequency of official controls,” she said.

“Whilst the studies were limited in scope and were not representative of all food businesses, it was useful to work with both a major national retailer and caterer who openly provided data for the trials." 

From September to December 2016, the FSA, Tesco, Mitchells & Butlers, their audit providers and volunteer local authorities tested the companies’ own assurance data against food safety requirements which local authorities use to check businesses are complying with the law.

The work with Tesco used data from the retailer’s second party auditors, assessed by volunteer food safety officers from 22 local authorities to see if a Food hygiene rating Scheme (FHRS) rating could be based on the stores’ audit data.

Tesco employs an independent audit service provider to carry out audits in stores on their behalf. Tesco sets the questions and frequency but the store visit is unannounced and scored independently.

It found there was a ‘good degree of consistency’ between food hygiene ratings during the exercise and those awarded by local authorities, according to the FSA.

“Industry sets the requirements for the qualifications, experience and competence of those undertaking second and third party audits but this is not co-ordinated and may vary across businesses and sectors,” according to the study.

“Consistent standards across the food industry are key to ensuring an effective industry assurance regime, for building trust, and providing confidence to enforcement officers that the outcome of second and third party audits can be relied upon.”

Local authority and second party auditors

The Mitchells & Butlers study involved shadow inspections between NSF International, Bristol City Council officers and Mitchells & Butlers’ ‘first party’ (in-house) auditors and ‘second party’ (external) auditors.

NSF does a minimum of two inspections per annum on behalf of Mitchells & Butlers, supported by ‘wildcard’ and re-audits to businesses not achieving minimum criteria.

It demonstrated the local authority officers and second party auditors were assessing and scoring compliance in a similar way, added the FSA.

Heather Hancock, chair of the FSA, previously said while the current system isn’t broken there are tell-tale cracks.

“We’ve a one size fits all approach to 600,000 food businesses. It’s designed around visits from inspectors bearing clipboards, which might have been enough 20, 30 years ago but it isn’t now,” she said.

“We’re relying too much on visual inspection when many critical food risks can’t be seen by the naked eye. It’s resource intensive, and it will be unsustainable before too long.

“I’ve heard some say: ‘Hold on. Consumers like the current system, they like the reassurance it offers, it’s working well.’ In truth, the public give little thought to it. They simply expect that someone’s got their back.

“What they believe happens, and the reality, are already quite different. We can’t wait for the cracks to be big enough for the public to notice.”

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