Last reviewed 9 January 2017

Major changes in how food businesses will be regulated in future are on the way and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has pledged to have moved away from its current one-size-fits-all approach to achieve a new system that is “tailored, proportionate and agile”. It’s time, says Vicky Powell, examining the telltale cracks emerging in the current system.

Regulating to achieve trusted food

The FSA’s five-year strategic plan from 2015 to 2020, entitled Food We Can Trust, sets out how the FSA intends to protect public health and consumers’ interest in relation to food, recognising there are “growing challenges around food safety, affordability, security and sustainability” and pledging to “put consumers first in everything”.

However, the Agency has acknowledged that achieving the strategic goal of Food We Can Trust will require a fundamental redesign of the FSA’s regulatory role and of the way in which regulation is delivered for the benefit of consumers.

As a result, Heather Hancock, the Chair of the FSA, says that the Agency’s plans to reform the way in which food businesses are regulated in future, known at the FSA as Regulating our Future (RoF), is “top of our to-do list”.

What’s wrong with the current system?

In October 2016, Heather Hancock was the keynote speaker at a parliamentary reception where she outlined the Agency’s RoF plans to an audience of parliamentarians and stakeholders.

During her speech, she warned, “While the current system isn’t yet broken, there are telltale 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. 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.”

The FSA Chair added, “We’re facing up to some simple truths. The safety and standards system in place today hasn’t kept pace with the sector we oversee. It hasn’t kept pace with technology; globalisation; the changing economics of food business. It hasn’t kept pace with changes in the national diet, the shift towards eating out and food on the go.”

No pain, no gain?

Like most transitions, the reform process will come with its challenges.

Heather Hancock said, “Not everyone is yet persuaded of the need for change. I’ve heard some say: ‘Hold on. Consumers like the current system, they like the reassurance it offers, it’s working well.’”

However, the FSA Chair added, “In truth, the public give little thought to [the current system]. 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. And papering over the cracks isn’t going to be enough.”

The FSA has promised to create a new blueprint which will move away from a one-size-fits-all approach, to tailored and proportionate regulation that reflects relative risk, reinforces accountability and delivers more for public health.

The FSA has set out five key principles that will form the core of discussions about the new system, as follows.

  1. Businesses are responsible for producing food that is safe and authentic and should be able to demonstrate that they do so.

  2. One size will not fit all, so the FSA will be considering how to segment businesses and then use a tailored approach.

  3. Businesses doing the right thing for consumers should be recognised; and action will be taken against those that do not, using a system of penalties and rewards.

  4. Businesses should meet the costs of regulation, which should be no more than they need to be.

  5. Good data is key. All available information sources should be taken into account.

Some of the above principles will be contentious. The FSA recently engaged members of the public and food businesses in a qualitative research project to help shape the future regulatory model in the UK. While the five principles were broadly agreed with by both the public and food business operators, there were concerns about less face-to-face regulation, the involvement of third parties and businesses meeting the costs of the new system.

The value of data, information and transparency

The FSA has noted that many big businesses have robust auditing and sampling regimes in place to ensure the food they provide to consumers is safe and what it says it is.

The FSA wants to make the most of this data and use it to inform its new approach, rather than overlooking a valuable resource.

In October 2016, the FSA confirmed the start of a three-month trial to compare data held by food businesses with data that councils collect from their inspections, in order to help create the new, more comprehensive and transparent system of food safety and assurance.

It is clear that rigorous data will underpin many other aspects of the new system.

Heather Hancock said, “We will use robust industry data to help assure compliance and tackle public trust. We will recognise good practice and help everyone learn from it. We’ll make smarter and more comprehensive use of accreditation. And we’ll ensure costs are fair and properly allocated. By 2020, we will have a fresh regime that’s agile, flexible and powerful.”

Yet, research by the FSA has shown that currently just 44% of consumers trust the people who produce or sell their food and Heather Hancock has highlighted this statistic as “a call to action for us all”.

Commenting on the key issue of trust in the context of food hygiene, the FSA Chair has in the past praised the Agency’s successful Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS), arguing that the scheme “exemplifies the power of transparency”.

She said, “We know consumers look at the ratings when they choose where to eat. That means businesses seek higher ratings, and that competitive element drives up levels of compliance. The system is simple, clear and effective.”

It is therefore likely that the FHRS will remain a cornerstone of the new system, whatever other changes are ahead.

Help shape the changes

It should be noted that the FSA is currently still very much in the process of planning the details of the new regulatory model and how it will work. However, the Agency has made clear that it wants local authorities, businesses and consumers to be involved in the design of the new model for ensuring food is safe and what it says it is.

In particular, the Agency wants to listen to the views of those with an interest in food standards and safety and to capture the insights and knowledge that already exists in an open and transparent way.

The intention is for a very open approach to facilitate the design of the most effective regulatory model for a modern and global food system.

Food businesses and other interested stakeholders can contribute to the discussion by joining the conversation on social media at #foodregulation or emailing the Agency directly at FutureDelivery@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk.