The statutory Official Food and Feed Control laboratory function ceased receiving samples at the end of February and will close by 31 March with the loss of six posts.
The lab will continue UKAS accredited food and beverage testing to private companies and local authority clients on an informal basis.
WYAS is operated by West Yorkshire Joint Services (WYJS) which is a joint committee running a number of services on behalf of the five West Yorkshire Councils.
‘Labs close but there isn’t a plan’
Dr Duncan Campbell, lead professional Public Analyst at WYAS, said it was losing its public analyst function hot on the heels of the closure of Staffordshire Scientific Services.
“With us it reached a point where we couldn’t grow the private business fast enough to compensate for the rate of reduction in local authority spend and that left a gap and we won’t have the opportunity to see if we could have come out of the other end of that,” he told FoodQualityNews.
“There is a legal need under EU legislation for there to be access to suitably qualified personnel, methodology and equipment to allow the FSA to discharge its function as central competent authority.
“Laboratories close but there isn’t a plan. Local decisions are made, here in West Yorkshire the elected members decided they couldn’t have a loss, that was projected at the time this process started, of over a hundred thousand a year and likely to increase…so they closed the loss making part of the concern.
“It was exactly the same in Staffordshire and before that in Taunton, Durham, Leicester, Liverpool and Cardiff. So the local decision is made and local authorities go somewhere else. Well, now in England you have a choice between four local authority providers and one in the private sector if you want to appoint a public analyst.”
Public analyst laboratories operated by local authorities in England are Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire and Worcestershire.
The private lab service (Public Analyst Scientific Services) has sites in Hull and Wolverhampton.
Decision largely financial
Susan Betteridge, director of West Yorkshire Joint Services, said the decision was mainly due to financial reasons.
“The decision was made largely on financial grounds on the basis that the operating deficit was destabilising other public services operated by WYJS. Elected members considered that the consumer food testing requirements of West Yorkshire Trading Standards, which is also operated by WYJS could be fulfilled to a satisfactory standard by other laboratories,” she said.
“WYAS will continue to be a lab that offers bespoke testing solutions to production and process issues and will retain the ability to provide newly developed methods to answer these one-off queries.”
Services include food and drink testing for compositional and nutritional content, contamination testing including heavy metals and illegal dyes, allergen and mycotoxin testing and authenticity verification.
Betteridge said the decision was mostly due to the financial position and followed a review.
“A review of WYAS was implemented in autumn 2017 at the request of the elected members of the WYJS committee who were concerned at the financial position of the service which was required to break even. The service was operating at a substantial deficit, largely due to reductions in public sector funding which impacted on customers of WYAS,” she said.
“The review looked at alternatives ranging from continuing to operate in the same way, part closure and full closure. A report was put to elected members in December and they were minded to opt for partial closure and asked for formal consultation to be undertaken with staff and trade unions.
“After that consultation had taken place, a further report was considered by elected members in January and they agreed to close part of the WYAS – the environmental and toxicology work is to continue.”
Betteridge added the changes will allow it to focus on other areas of testing including e-liquids analysis, air pollution monitoring and occupational exposure work.
Capability and capacity concern
The number of official control samples taken has been reducing, according to the Association of Public Analysts. In the UK, in 2010/11 it was 92,122 but in 2014/15 it was 68,471 (26% reduction).
Dr Campbell said there was no mechanism for maintaining capability and capacity.
“The only money that funds the public analyst service is what local authorities pay to have samples analysed. That is why labs are closing: the demand has fallen so the supply is falling. It will get to a point where there is not a capability and capacity there,” he said.
“Who is to say in another couple of years another two local authority labs will have closed and the private sector providers look at it and thinks we are not making any money out of this, it is only going to get worse, we’ll concentrate on our core business and pull out.
“That was one of the concerns Chris Elliott raised in his review and his vision of having this spine of local authority public sector labs has just not happened.
“When we have the next crisis that involves something to do with food standards, or isn’t to do with microbiological food safety, who is going to be here in the UK with the knowledge, the skill base, the willingness to defend their results in the criminal courts?
“Who is looking at the bigger picture? The FSA went to the Treasury to get £5m a year extra for the National Food Crime Unit, the FSA didn’t see fit to go to the Treasury and say can we have £5m a year to provide a world class public analyst service.
“They wouldn’t need to have just given that money to the labs, if they put that money into Trading Standards for them to carry out inspections and take samples that would have funded us.”
From the start of April to end of 2017, 47% of enforcement samples taken in West Yorkshire and analysed at WYAS were found to be unsatisfactory.
Dr Campbell said the sample numbers taken in West Yorkshire is a third of what it was 10 years ago.
“You need people taking samples – there are local authorities that just don’t take any samples and they are supposed to have a risk-based sampling plan but the Agency doesn’t seem to invoke any sanctions if they don’t take any or a meaningful amount,” he said.
“In West Yorkshire we find something wrong with between 40-50% of samples, that is not that the food is bad in West Yorkshire, that is because, until now, the sampling program has been fairly comprehensive, intelligence-led and I’ve had a lot of freedom to look for things I think are important.
“If you had proper sampling programmes in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol or London you would be finding similar failure rates, but at the moment in those metropolitan areas there is next to no sampling going on.”