Due diligence & food standards enforcement

* 3 min read
Phil Dalton, Head of Regulatory here at Sun Branding reflects on due diligence & food standards enforcement, both past and present.

I was interested to read the report of the ‘Review of delivery of food standards official controls’, which was on the agenda at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) board meeting on 5th December. As an ex-Trading Standards Officer specialising in food law, a former trading law manager at a major retailer responsible for own label compliance, and more recently a consultant to the food industry specialising in food labelling, I have witnessed first-hand how the primary driving force behind food standards has shifted from being enforcement-led to being industry-led.

When I first qualified as a TSO in 1986, we took multiple food samples for analysis every day of the week and fired off dozens of letters to food businesses large and small, advising on labelling and compositional discrepancies. Most Trading Standards Departments around the country did the same. I spent much of my remaining working day providing free advice to food businesses based within the county, both small and large. At that time, industry had only a few labelling experts and often struggled to comply, even the big supermarkets were just beginning to see the value in recruiting people from enforcement backgrounds to support and drive their own processes. Formal investigations, and even legal proceedings for breaches of labelling rules, compositional standards and the misleading presentation of food, were relatively common. I recall in a seminar on ‘rogue traders’ at one Trading Standards Conference, a chief TSO standing up and denouncing the big supermarkets as the main offenders. How things have changed!

I used to joke, years ago, that industry could save money on ‘due diligence’ by employing every TSO in the country and paying them to stay at home. We are now in a situation where something similar has happened almost by accident. Fortunately, the food industry has not seen this as an opportunity to reduce standards, indeed the opposite is the case, with our industry demonstrating a compliance culture that would have astounded many enforcement officers 30 years ago. Partly driven by enforcement, but developed and refined by the industry, most major food businesses take compliance very seriously (even though they seldom see an enforcement officer). ‘Due diligence’ is alive and well in the food industry.

We are probably at the point where the majority of food labelling specialists are now working within industry, and the systems and processes introduced and managed by reputable food manufacturers and retailers, and supported by these ex-TSOs and others, are the mainstay of food standards compliance. I recently spoke with a major food manufacturer who informed me that he could not recall the last time they had a letter from an enforcement agency, much less a visit. By contrast, he has a retailer visit or audit almost every week to ensure that standards are being maintained. This positive for larger and established food businesses, however there is now a generation of new food businesses who have never experienced food standards enforcement and are deprived of the guidance and support TSOs used to provide. Food standards and labelling laws have not been simplified over the years and without some support, new food businesses may struggle to meet legal requirements, standards will drop and there will be an increased risk to consumers.

Things have moved on from the 80s and 90s and no-one would advocate a return to the enforcement-led regime. However, credible enforcement of food standards is essential to provide a backstop in a cost sensitive industry, to support new food businesses, and to deal with the inevitable rogue traders and criminal elements. The food industry wants and needs the support of a professional enforcement service. It is therefore welcome that the FSA should recognise the crisis in enforcement of food standards and look to support a solution. Many of the ex-TSOs currently in industry would be happy to support the FSA in developing this new enforcement service.