Shortages in key occupations needed to keep food safe is leaving UK consumers and businesses vulnerable, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said.
The number of UK food standards officers has fallen by 45% compared with 10 years ago, according to an annual report by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland.
The UK veterinary profession has experienced a 27% decline in people joining between 2019 and 2022, creating significant challenges in securing enough official veterinarians (OVs) for the future, it warns.
Meanwhile there has been a 14% decline in food hygiene posts in local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last decade, with more than 13% of available posts vacant,
In Scotland, the number of food law officers who carry out both food hygiene and food standards work has fallen by just over a quarter (25.5%) compared with 2016/17.
A lack of OVs posed risks to animal health and welfare and the potential disruption of domestic food supply and the ability to export animal products, while workforce pressure on local authority teams risked hampering their ability to carry out critical food safety and standards checks in food businesses, the FSA said.
Overall, food standards remained stable in 2022, despite inflation, labour shortages and the war in Ukraine.
However, the report said that worker shortages made it more difficult to identify, monitor and respond to risks to food safety, leaving consumers and businesses vulnerable.
FSA chairwoman Professor Susan Jebb said: “The food system across the UK experienced significant challenges throughout 2022, with the rising cost of living and inflation impacting grocery bills for consumers, and food businesses feeling the pressure of labour shortages and increased supply chain costs.
“Despite these pressures, I’m encouraged that our report indicates that overall, food standards have remained stable.
“However, food safety and standards hinge on good procedures and skilled people to ensure that the right checks are carried out.
“It takes time to recruit and develop these skills and we worry that without specific action to boost the workforce, specifically to recruit more official veterinarians and local authority inspectors, it will not be possible to maintain these high standards in the future.
“Failure to recruit and train professionals to key posts can have reverberations for many years to come.
“We ask governments across the UK, and others, to work with us to address these matters in the coming year so that people in the UK can continue to have food they can trust, and the strong reputation of British food abroad is maintained.”
Heather Kelman, chairwoman of the FSS, said: “It is encouraging to see that in 2022, amid several significant challenges both here in the UK and further afield, the overall safety and standards of our food has been upheld to the very high standards which we expect.
“However, we must recognise the very significant challenges ahead and the potential problems that a lack of resourcing, specifically within environmental health officer and official veterinarian roles, may cause to the overall food system.
“It is now more important than ever for those who govern the system, as well as everyone involved in food production, retail and distribution, to work together to ensure food is safe and consumers and trade are protected.
“It is critical that together, we do everything we can to ensure we have a modernised system of assurance to support businesses that provide safe food for everyone and that the UK’s high food standards are maintained, in spite of the cost and workforce pressures we continue to face.”