The pressures on local authorities and food laboratories were among the issues discussed at the latest Food Standards Scotland (FSS) board meeting.
One plan to resolve the situation is for a nationally funded official laboratory service in Scotland. This could see the four existing public analyst labs remain within local authorities but operate as a unified service under a formal agreement. In a Centers of Excellence model, all four labs would provide a blend of routine testing and different specialist techniques, to reduce duplication and optimize resources.
Another idea would see the labs come together to operate as a single entity, managed by the Scottish government or FSS. This would involve the creation of a new body that would operate independently.
Long term underinvestment in official laboratory services has placed the country’s food and feed scientific capabilities at risk, which has serious implications for public health and trade, said officials.
Ensuring lab capacity
Ongoing resource pressures on local authorities means the current funding model is not sustainable. Moving to a new one will require investment. In the past seven years, FSS has provided public analyst labs with £ 150,000-200,000 ($ 180,000- $ 240,000) annually for the national food sampling program. The new surveillance sampling strategy for food and animal feed aims to increase this budget to £ 500,000-700,000 ($ 600,000- $ 838,000) per year.
Officials warned that failure to take action now to safeguard the service risks losing it completely, which would generate significant additional costs in the future.
The loss of official laboratory capacity in Scotland, because of a lack of funding would have serious consequences for the work of FSS, local authorities and wider Scottish Government public health and food policy; impacting the ability to investigate foodborne outbreaks; and monitor the safety, standards and authenticity of food on the Scottish market, including imported products.
A previous review of the public analyst service recommended a shared services model but local authorities couldn’t agree on implementation. The topic was discussed at a board meeting in late 2019 but the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit blocked any progress.
The Scottish Government has planned a financial freeze for FSS until 2027 at the earliest. The agency submitted an additional funding request and a business case. However, this was not approved and the resource budget has been held at £ 22.7 million ($ 27.2 million) for four years beginning in 2023-2024.
Staffing gaps impacting ability
Another paper at the meeting looked at Scottish local authority environmental health services.
Current pressures on authorities include a lack of resources, an expanded remit, the impact of COVID-19 and EU exit. A failure to invest in the training and supply of professionals, mainly due to funding cuts, means the demand for staff outstrips the supply.
In December 2021, local authorities had 202 full-time equivalent (FTE) qualified officers to deliver the Food Law Code of Practice. They carry a deficit of 60 FTEs vacancies and reported an estimated requirement to meet all food law and EU exit requirements of 380 FTEs. This presents a deficit of 178 FTEs, which provides strong evidence that the current model is at tipping point, said officials.
The risk of allowing this to continue undermines Scotland’s ability to protect consumer interests in relation to food, presents risk to public health and potentially could lead to exporting businesses being rejected from importing country lists.
Findings from FSS audits over recent years highlighted concerns over the capacity, and capability of local authorities to deliver food law requirements.
Future board meetings will focus on local authority delivery and outline proposals for modernization of the current framework.
Outstanding recommendations from review
FSS is also seeking to end the cutting plant and cold store review project despite a number of recommendations not being completed yet.
In February 2018, the FSS and the Food Standards Agency reviewed these sites following incidents in several UK businesses which identified concerns in relation to industry practices on traceability, durability and authenticity.
There are eight recommendations which have not been completed, including four for FSS and FSA and four for industry. Another 10 have been resolved.
Industry has said it is facing significant challenges and businesses do not currently have the resources or finances available to action the points that are not legal requirements. Ongoing proposals include introducing CCTV at critical points within cutting plants and cold stores and showing greater transparency by making certain information available to regulators.
FSS and FSA recommendations have not yet been delivered because of delays because of EU exit and the COVID-19 pandemic. Continuing topics include a trial to evaluate a single organization doing all official controls in one location and introduce a more standardized approach to the wording of durability on product labels and require companies to adopt it.
The FSA closed the project after updating its board in January 2020. The FSS said it was now appropriate to reassess the priority of outstanding actions given food crime capability has improved and meat industry practices do not present a systemic risk to public health.
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