The FSA have recently announced that they will be participating in a pilot scheme to audit and rate food authority performance in Wales. It is not intended that the audit process itself will change radically but is more likely that the results of the audit will be transformed into a score (the methodology for which will be drawn up in due course). There is not much time though as in April 2013 a report on the pilot will be evaluated and the approach considered for extension.
The idea behind the scheme is to provide further transparency and clarity of information to consumers. Opposers have questioned though, whether will this actually be useful for, and empower, consumers in any way. Reports in the press suggest that the scheme has been welcomed by two of the 20 food authorities who have volunteered to pilot the project. However, other food authorities and bodies such as the Welsh food advisory committee have not been supportive of the proposal. Whilst the review into official controls continues to take place and local authority funding being cut dramatically the timing of the pilot is causing concern. Other professionals have raised immediate concerns citing the potential for a loss of confidence in enforcement and potential legal challenges.
However, due to the powers invested in the FSA under the Food Standards Act, they are well within their rights to ensure that the framework agreement is being implemented effectively and need to demonstrate their own competence as the primary food authority to the European Commission. In addition, similar approaches are already undertaken by other bodies with statutory oversight such as OFSTED and the Care Quality Commission. In response, the FSA have tried to reassure food authorities though by saying that there is no desire to 'gold plate' and as long as LA’s meet the standard in the framework agreement there would be no reason why the LA would not get a top score.
The FSA have taken on additional staff to undertake the pilot in Wales but its not sure if they are able to audit all UK food authorities. Their current auditing rate, based on focused subject specific audits, represents a small proportion of local authorities. But, hypothetically speaking, if this scheme were able to be realised across the UK is it really something that should be feared? Furthermore, could this form part of the answer to the official controls review?
The FSA have indicated that, in England, there is the potential for any additional auditing to include inter-authority auditing as well as traditional FSA auditing. Those food authorities not already participating are advised to implement third party or regional inter-authority auditing partnerships; having such arangements in place will bring food professionals up to speed with the process and help demonstrate the ongoing committment to quality, consistency and transparency that the FSA are looking for.
Third party audits are currently available from Encentre. Contact us for more information.