According to the annual Our Food report from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) for 2022, there has been a ‘substantial decline’ in the number of allocated food safety officers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last decade or so.
Figures show there were just under 14% fewer food hygiene posts held by local authorities in 2022/23 compared with 2010/11.
Additionally, approximately one in seven (13.7%) posts across the three countries were vacant in 2022, higher than the pre-pandemic figure of 9.6%.
In Scotland, meanwhile, the shortage is more acute. The number of occupied food law posts, which covers food safety, fell by 25.5% in 2021/22 compared to 2016/2017.
Overall, food standards remained 'stable' in 2022, according to the report, but it warns that long-term reductions in local authority staffing numbers, coupled with growing recruitment challenges, are putting ‘unsustainable pressure’ on existing teams and ‘increase the potential for food safety issues going unchecked and undiscovered in the future’.
“Food safety and standards hinge on good procedures and skilled people to ensure that the right checks are carried out,” explains Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the FSA.
“It takes time to recruit and develop these skills and we worry that without specific action to boost the workforce, it will not be possible to maintain these high standards in the future.”
There were approximately 39,500 unrated businesses at the end of 2022 across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, reflecting a substantial fall from the post-pandemic peak of 77,000 recorded in April 2021.
Food hygiene inspection data gathered on 31 December 2022, showing the most recent inspection results, indicates that more than nine out of ten food businesses achieved 'satisfactory' or better ratings, with minimal changes reported compared to last year.
Just over three-quarters (75.7%) of food businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieved a top rating of five for hygiene, while 2.9% of food establishments scored two or below, which means they require 'improvement', 'major improvement' or 'urgent improvement'.
By contrast, the Food Hygiene Information Scheme active in Scotland, which is based on a pass or fail rating, showed that 93.8% of inspected businesses met the required standard in 2022.