UK food safety pilot program lets some stores, pubs police themselves

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In announcing plans to shift food safety regulation away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency also announced it has designed a three-month pilot program that will allow certain big retailers and restaurants to oversee their own food safety operations.

“For many years we’ve had an inspection model that includes sending local authority inspectors to look at how businesses are providing assurance to consumers in relation to food standards and hygiene,” according to a “FSA statement on future food regulation” posted Monday.

“We believe this is a resource intensive way to maintain confidence that food is safe and what it says it is and we believe there are other options also worth exploring as a means of ensuring consumer protection.”

This FSA graphic illustrates how the agency plans to change its regulatory approach to food safety in the U.K.

The agency is proposing a regulatory model that “continues to use inspections and visits alongside the information we can gain from business’s data and accredited third party audits to ensure that food safety and authenticity are top of a food business’s mind every day – not just on inspection day.”

The three-month pilot program will compare food safety data from businesses with that collected by local authorities during inspections to see whether it will make sure things are being done correctly, FDA explained, calling the approach “a new, more comprehensive and transparent system of business assurance.”

The Tesco supermarket chain and the Mitchells & Butlers pub chain will be the first to try on the new self-regulated regime. If the pilot program works out, the plan could be applied nationwide by 2020.

Critics charged that the shift stems from FSA budget cuts and that the timing couldn’t be worse due to the 2013 European horsemeat scandal and recent news that samples of UK retail chicken were contaminated with Campylobacter and E. coli and that a livestock strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, had been found in pork products sold at two major UK supermarket chains.

“I would be worried that it could open the door for food contamination and food fraud. And I still think we need a system of inspectors from the FSA on the ground to make the system safe,” said Mike Bromley, founder of the food-testing firm Genon Laboratories.

However, a spokesman for FSA told a London newspaper that the proposed regulatory changes are not related to the agency’s budget.

“This is nothing to do with cuts, it’s about getting a better system in place to protect people’s health,” he said in The Sun newspaper. “Business innovation has outstripped the way regulation has always been done and we need to keep pace with this new world to stop people being put at risk. We want businesses to take proper responsibility for food safety and local authority resources to be properly used.”

FSA officials also say they hope the move will free up resources to allow tougher enforcement of food safety laws at restaurants and retailers where practices pose a more serious public health threat to the public.

FSA is still in the process of developing details of this new regulatory model and how it will work, according to the agency.

“However, what is clear is that we want local authorities, businesses and consumers to be involved in the design of this new model for ensuring food is safe and what it says it is,” FSA stated.

To that end, the agency is asking for ideas, concerns and thoughts of all those who have an interest in food safety in the U.K.

“This open approach will mean we can design the most effective regulatory model for a modern and global food system,” FSA stated.

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