A North council has been accused of “taking chances with public health” over its response to a damning report on food hygiene.
Northumberland County Council was last year slammed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which found serious deficiencies in its statutory duty to monitor food safety, leading to fears of possible outbreaks of food poisoning, E.coli infections or worse.
The Labour-run council has now produced a report setting out how it has responded to the FSA’s findings.
However, the authority’s Conservative opposition group has described that response as “wholly inadequate” - particularly in relation to staffing levels.
The key findings of the FSA following its audit last October were that 600 businesses were waiting for an assessment while over 700 registered food businesses had had no contact from the council.
The authority could not produce records showing that its officers had received appropriate training to keep up with the Food Law Code of Practice.
Furthermore, the council has since admitted it does not have enough staff to meet its inspection obligations.
A report on how the council has addressed the issues raised was presented to the authority’s communities and place scrutiny committee recently.
In a statement, the council revealed a total of 2,496 visits had been carried out to food establishments in 2012/13, while the number of trained and qualified staff has risen from seven to nine since 2011.
Tory leader Coun Peter Jackson last night said: “The latest review of the council’s response to the serious flaws exposed by the FSA audit inspection is wholly inadequate and shows that Northumberland County Council is prepared to take chances with the public health of both our residents and visitors to our county.
“The council has had nearly a year in which to correct its deficient food inspection processes.
“Some improvements have been made but the committee was far from assured that the situation has been completely resolved, especially in relation to staffing levels.”
Committee member Wayne Daley added: “It is very clear that pure luck has prevented a serious outbreak of food poisoning in Northumberland and the council cannot rely on luck any more. They must take action and get staff in place to protect the population.”
An authority spokesperson said: “The council took immediate action before receiving the audit findings in December 2012 to address areas highlighted by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in... October 2012.
“In addition to developing a comprehensive audit action plan, the detail of which has been agreed by the FSA and the majority of actions now implemented, the public protection service continues to proactively develop service improvements so residents can be confident about food safety in Northumberland.
“This area of work continues to be a high priority for the council. We are confident that we will be able to deliver the inspection programme and associated activities as set out within the Food and Feed Safety and Standards service plan for 2013/14.”
The council said 94% of businesses which supply food direct to consumers have achieved three, four or five stars under the national Food Hygiene Rating Scheme.