Proposals to overhaul the fee inspection regime at food and feed facilities in the UK would result in a more consistent and clearer system - but one that would cost businesses more, said the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
The food safety watchdog appears to have anticipated industry opposition to the scheme but said the proposals are necessary to improve standards and ensure the UK has a voice in upcoming EU negotiations.
In a report due to go before its board next week, the FSA said current charging arrangements are inconsistently applied across sectors and there is no strong link between fees paid and compliance with food safety legislation. It added the present system actually discourages greater responsibility by food business operators (FBO) for delivery of official controls.
Under the current regime, fee for official inspections apply at slaughterhouses, meat cutting sites and fish processing plants - but not at registered food and feed establishments, nor dairy processors or fish cutting facilities.
The FSA review is part of a European Union-wide rethink over the financing of official controls in food and feed under Regulation EC 882/2004, with Brussels expected to deliver legislative proposals in spring 2012.
The agency has laid out a raft of principles that it believes would make the system fairer, more cost effective and ensure a higher level of consumer protection across the economic bloc.
It proposes a clearer and simpler system that would cut bureaucracy and make fees easier to calculate and apply.
The fees should be based on actual costs and aim at full cost recovery, said the body.
“This is a key principle – our experience in the meat sector shows that recovery based on the actual costs of delivering official controls provides an incentive both to compliance and to co-operation to enable a more efficient delivery of controls,” said FSA director of food safety Dr Alison Gleadle in the report.
Clarifying which products and sectors should be covered by the system would remove the present charging inconsistencies, added the paper. It called for strengthening the link between fees and compliance to provide an incentive for FBOs to observe regulations.
The proposals will have an impact not just of FBOs and current inspection bodies – but also on consumers if additional costs were passed along the supply chain, said the FSA.
“However, there should also be an improvement in the level of consumer protection with a system of fees that supports a more targeted and risk-based delivery of official controls and a further benefit to the taxpayer with a reduction in cost to the public purse...,” said Dr Gleadle.
The FSA noted there may be industry resistance to higher fees and the inclusion of more sectors into the inspection regime. But it adds not changing the present system could result in a failure to improve food safety and compliance by businesses, as well as running the risk of not being able to influence EU policy.