Just as stricter guidelines for sentencing of food safety and hygiene offences came into force at the start of February 2016 it has become apparent that the budgets of the Food Standards Agency (FSA,) who sets food regulation strategy and standards, and Local Authorities (LAs) who do the delivery, are becoming increasingly strained.
The Food Standards Agency board has backed proposals to move away from physical inspections by LA Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) after it emerged that growing numbers of councils are struggling to meet the legal threshold for food safety checks. The result of this is that enforcement is likely to be much more focused and risk based; whereby food producers who have a good food safety system will both be able to protect themselves from fines that will take as their starting point the turnover of a business and reduce their likely inspection regime from LAs.
The FSA’s funding remains frozen until 2020; despite the setting up of the national Food Crime Unit (FCU) last year. The FSA board has now put forward proposals, which will be discussed with stakeholders and at special meetings across the country, urging regulators to find alternative ways to check food businesses are safe to eat in. It envisages third parties carrying out some checks and regulators relying on information that does not come from physical inspections.
The overhaul will also see poor-performing businesses expected to pay more than those with better safety records.
It is recognised that larger businesses were being physically inspected and scrutinized more from their internal and external consultants than by local authority EHOs and it made sense for resources to be concentrated on poorer performing businesses and those who don’t have those sorts of resources.
Guidelines for sentencing for food safety offences
These new sentencing guidelines use turnover (rather than profit) as the starting point for calculating fines and sentencing ranges are set according to culpability and harm.
The implementation and resources provided to a company’s’ food safety and management processes will directly affect the size of any potential fine by deciding on what level of ‘culpability’ the company may be found at. For example, ‘very high culpability’ will be found where there was flagrant disregard for the law and ‘high culpability’ where the company failed to put in place measures that are recognised standards in the industry; versus ‘low culpability’ where significant efforts were made to secure food safety although they were inadequate on the occasion in question. The ‘harm’ caused will be assessed within 3 categories, where there is widespread impact (such as in the horsemeat scandal) this is taken into account as the highest category 1 level in assessing the fine, even if there was limited food safety repercussions.
Clearly stated as aggravating factors include where the offence was motivated by financial gain and again where there is evidence of wider/community impact.
There is a move towards more personal corporate responsibility for food safety and associated benefits and risks of this. This responsibility for food safety and authentication should also be noted to stretch into procurement practices.