With around 500,000 food poisoning cases a year, the latest Which? research reveals there is still a huge variation in food hygiene standards across the country, with one in five high or medium risk food establishments failing to meet requirements.
Which? found that in 20 local authority areas the chances of someone buying from a food business that is not meeting hygiene requirements was as high as 1 in 3, and in the lowest-rated local authority area, Hyndburn in Lancashire, this rose to nearly 2 in every 3 outlets.
As the Food Standards Agency undertakes a fundamental review of how the food enforcement system works, Which? analysed data submitted to the FSA and Food Standards Scotland by 386 UK local authorities and ranked those local authority areas based on: the proportion of medium and high risk premises meeting hygiene requirements, the proportion of total premises rated for risk, and the proportion of planned interventions (such as inspections or follow up actions) the authorities achieved.
The lowest ranking local authority areas according to Which?’s analysis include:
• Hyndburn in Lancashire was the local authority area with the lowest ranking with only 35 per cent of its medium and high risk businesses meeting acceptable hygiene standards.
• Birmingham, with 8071 food businesses, was second from bottom overall, with only 59 per cent of medium to high risk businesses found to be broadly compliant with hygiene rules. In contrast, 82 per cent of medium to high risk businesses were compliant in Leeds, which has a comparable total of 7603 premises.
There are around 500,000 food poisoning cases a year
• Four London local authority areas (Newham, Ealing, Lewisham and Camden) were all ranked in the bottom 10.
The highest ranking local authority areas according to Which?’s analysis include:
• Erewash in Derbyshire, which topped the table with a 97 per cent compliance rate.
• Sunderland as the highest ranking Metropolitan Borough in England.
• The five most improved local authority areas since our analysis two years ago are: Bexley, Sunderland, Stock port, South Cambridgeshire and Barrow-in Furness.
Bexley is now ranked number one in London, despite being bottom of the UK-wide table four years ago.
With food production becoming ever more complex at a time when the resources of regulators and Local Authorities are under pressure, the FSA and FSS review will look at options such as tighter checks when a food business opens and how data from businesses can be used more effectively.
However, Which? is concerned that proposed reforms could see a potential shift towards more inspections being carried out by third parties employed by businesses in place of checks by public authorities.
Which? is calling on the regulators to ensure that a robust food standards system is put in place that serves consumer interests and avoids any conflicts of interest.
In a landscape that is heavily underpinned by EU regulation, a comprehensive strategy for enforcement post-Brexit is needed, as the UK is likely to take on much more responsibility for checks on imported food products.
Alex Neill, Which? Managing Director of Home Services said: “People expect their food to be safe, but there is clearly still work to be done.
“As we prepare to leave the EU, the Government and regulators need to ensure that there is a robust, independent system of enforcement in place “to give people confidence that the food they’re eating is hygienic”.