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All change for food regulation

Michael Jackson, Head of Regulatory Standards and Assurance for the FSA’s Regulating Our Future Programme, explains the thinking behind the new programme and how it will operate.


Four months before the referendum on membership of the European Union (EU), the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched Regulating Our Future (ROF), a programme of work aimed at modernising the way food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are regulated. At the time, the two were not linked but since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the ROF programme’s objectives have taken on added significance.

To clarify, ROF is not about changing the food safety regulations that have been in place for many years in the UK. When the UK leaves the EU, those regulations will remain in place. Instead, ROF is redesigning the system though which these rules are enforced. That system, largely based on inspections carried out by local authority staff and overseen by the FSA, has remained unchanged for many years. It has not kept pace with changes in the food industry or advances in technology, nor does it reflect the current landscape of local authority funding. A new approach is needed.

Since February 2016, the FSA has been working closely with the food industry, local authorities and consumers to identify what that new approach should be.

These discussions have been challenging but fruitful. We have established the need for the new model of regulation to be financially sustainable and flexible. It must be capable of adapting to future needs as well as changing patterns of food production and consumption. It needs to be ready for our new relationship with the EU, allowing us to continue to trade confidently with our European neighbours, and also with trading partners around the world. That confidence must also be maintained at home. We need to make sure that the public in the UK retain the trust in the food system that the industry, local authorities and the FSA have worked hard over the years to build up.

Data and new technology have emerged as key to delivering a modern, new system of regulation. Many food businesses and assurance schemes are already generating large amounts of quality data that could be potentially harnessed to ascertain whether these businesses are doing the right thing for consumers. We are exploring the feasibility of how this data could be used and which technologies provide solutions for capturing and making it available to regulators.

Not all of these changes can be achieved immediately, but we have set 2020 as the target for having the new model of regulation in place. This is a challenging target but the ROF programme is one of the FSA’s key priorities and we are committed to transforming the model.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain in more detail the vision set out by the ROF programme and how we are delivering it.

ROF is not about changing the food safety regulations that have been in place for many years in the UK. When the UK leaves the EU, those regulations will remain in place.


Why we need to change?

It may come as a surprise to many people that under the current system used to regulate food businesses, the FSA, which is the central competent authority for food safety, does not have an overview of all registered businesses. That information is held by individual local authorities and it is not always updated regularly by food business operators, so we do not have an accurate picture of all food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under the plans we have developed through ROF we intend to change that.

The current delivery model is outdated. The approach that was used to regulate food businesses before the internet is trying to keep pace with a food chain that is increasingly moving online. New technology, changing patterns of consumption, and an ever-more complex food chain provide challenges and opportunities to create a more modern, risk-based, proportionate, robust and resilient system.

Our current model is also financially unsustainable. Wider Government policy is moving regulators away from a system where the taxpayer picks up the costs of regulation. Local authorities are already finding it increasingly challenging to fund the current system, so we need to look at more sustainable ways of keeping consumers safe.

Finally, EU Exit looms large over all of the FSA’s work and none more so than for the ROF programme. The new system we put in place must, in a post-EU Exit world, inspire confidence in those who will be deciding whether our system of regulation is robust enough to maintain our trading position in the world.

It may come as a surprise to many people that under the current system used to regulate food businesses, the FSA, which is the central competent authority for food safety, does not have an overview of all registered businesses.

The ROF principles

We started with five key principles to underpin our programme of transformation:

• Businesses are responsible for producing food that is safe and what it says it is, and should be able to demonstrate that they do so. Consumers have a right to information to help them make informed choices about the food they buy – businesses have a responsibility to be transparent and honest in their provision of that information.

• FSA and regulatory partners’ decisions should be tailored, proportionate and based on a clear picture of UK food businesses.

• The regulator should take into account all available sources of information.

• Businesses doing the right thing for consumers should be recognised; action will be taken against those that do not.

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

We have used these principles to develop the blueprint for a new model of regulation. This target operating model describes the regulatory journey we envisage businesses of all sizes taking.

The blueprint

For all new food businesses, the journey will always start by registering with their local authority. Throughout the consultation process we have been emphasising the continued importance of local authorities in the new system. We have been sensitive to their concerns about the role of local enforcement officers and how their jobs may change. However, we are adamant that their expertise is still going to play a vital role, but within a transformed model.

The first part of the model involves developing an Enhanced Registration system. The current approach to registration of food businesses is not fit for purpose and many new businesses do not proactively register. This means that local authorities often just don’t know enough about the food businesses they have to regulate: who owns them, exactly what they are doing and what risks they present. Under the new system we want to learn more about food businesses before they start to operate and to make it easier for them to access the guidance and support to help them comply with food law. Work is underway to develop a digital solution that will provide a unified view of all food businesses and enable us to make more informed risk management decisions, which we see as a priority for EU Exit. We are aiming to have the new solution in place by April 2019.

Once registered, businesses will be segmented. Segmentation recognises that not all businesses present the same risks to the public. Each business will therefore be assessed to decide if, how and when they need to be inspected. The new approach here will consider a range of factors that influence the likelihood of compliance of a business, moving away from the traditional approach in which we only focus on factors directly related to food safety. We will also give more recognition to businesses that are consistently doing the right thing to protect consumers and comply with the law. This means we can better target resources towards those that do not.

The next step is Assurance. In the current model there is limited use of the data gathered by industry, either directly or through second or third parties, in the official control regime implemented by the FSA and local authorities. We intend to change that and to use industry data that meets the standards we will set. This will inform the nature, frequency and intensity of official controls. This approach is one that is gathering momentum more widely and the FSA is playing a leading role in taking it forward at EU level and in Codex.

An example of development in this area is the pathfinder trial we are undertaking in England. This is looking at compliance of multi-site businesses through Primary Authority partnerships to inform the development of National Inspection Strategies. The introduction of National Inspection Strategies would release local authority resource that could then be targeted at those businesses presenting the greatest risk. It would also make more effective use of the assurance data already captured by the businesses.

In this approach, local authorities would continue to undertake reactive work, verification checks and enforcement where required. Businesses would not be ‘marking their own homework’ as has been suggested by some commentators. This brings us to Intervention. Whilst the new system will better recognise those that are doing well, it will also ensure firm and prompt action will be taken when businesses are not meeting their responsibilities. We will also anticipate risks in the food chain so that action can be taken to prevent consumers being harmed.

Effective intervention is vital to maintaining consumer confidence. If businesses are consistently failing to meet their obligations then action will be taken. Our message to businesses is: take your obligations to comply with food law and produce safe food seriously or be prepared to face the consequences.

In addition to having greater oversight of the whole system we are developing a new approach to Surveillance. This will ensure that we understand businesses better and will be in a stronger position to anticipate risk, making it much easier to spot potential problems before they arise. Overall, we are aiming to develop a model that will be more flexible, agile, and sustainable and capable of responding to and making use of changes in technology.

Our message to businesses is: take your obligations to comply with food law and produce safe food seriously or be prepared to face the consequences.

What’s next?

We are now moving to the delivery stage of the new system. We are progressing in two phases: pre-EU Exit and post EU Exit. By March 2019, we aim to have confirmed our approach to enhanced registration and put in place the digital solution for delivering this. Post EU Exit we will put in place the system for using regulated private assurance and the standards that this will need to meet. We will also implement a funding model that will ensure the new system is sustainable into the 21st century.

This is a challenging programme for the FSA and a great example of open policy making with input from our partners in the food industry, local authorities and consumer groups throughout the development process. We have established close working links with IFST. John Bassett is participating in the Expert Advisory Group set up to assist the programme and in the Segmentation Working Group.

Michael Jackson

Head of Regulatory Standards and Assurance, Regulating Our Future Programme, Food Standards Agency, UK

If you would like to keep up to date on how the ROF programme is progressing, then please visit our webpage at: regulation/regulating-our-future

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