UNION officials say they warned managers at a North East council that budget cuts were threatening the authority’s food safety monitoring and enforcement regime.
Unison claims it told bosses at Northumberland County Council about its serious concerns that spending reductions were being given a higher priority than ensuring food safety.
The unions says managers rejected the fears and insisted that the food hygiene inspection and enforcement service was being delivered safely.
Last week, The Journal revealed how an official audit by a national watchdog body uncovered a catalogue of failings in the way the council was handling food safety checks.
The Food Standards Agency found “significant concerns” about how the authority carries out hygiene enforcement in the near-4,000 food premises it is required to watch over.
FSA auditors called on the council to carry out a fundamental review of its service delivery – including taking a number of urgent actions – and to demonstrate how improvements could be made to improve public safety.
The findings of the critical audit, which was carried out in October last year, included concerns about a large backlog of food businesses which were overdue an inspection, inspections being carried out by unauthorised officers and inadequate record keeping.
Now Ian Fleming, Unison’s joint branch secretary at County Hall, says the union told managers that the service was creaking.
He said: “Unison members who work in public protection at Northumberland County Council warned management that the service was overburdened, and that their proposed model was unsustainable.
“Management rejected those arguments and asserted that they were confident the service could be delivered safely. This report comes as a shock to Unison, but is not a surprise.
“As council staff committed to delivering a safe and effective service, we have been deeply concerned about the way in which cuts have been prioritised above food safety, despite the protests and warnings from our members.
“We look forward to a constructive discussion with management.”
Yesterday, in a response to the union’s statement, a council spokeswoman said: “While acknowledging the pressures upon local authority budgets, the public protection service established the commercial team in 2011 to ensure greater focus on this priority area of work.
“A review of service delivery had been initiated prior to the (FSA) audit, arising from which measures were put in place to improve existing levels of performance, and the decision was taken to increase overall resources, both in the short and long term.”
Last week the council said it took immediate action, during the course of the FSA audit visit, to address any urgent areas of concern.
It had also developed, and was implementing, an action plan to ensure long-term, full compliance with the FSA Food Law Enforcement Standard.
The audit revealed there were about 600 lower-risk businesses in Northumberland which required assessment and intervention to make sure they continued to comply with the law. In addition, there were more than 700 registered food businesses that had yet to receive an intervention from the authority – contrary to the Food Law code of practice.
Auditors found that inadequate food establishment and intervention records were being kept throughout all enforcement activities, and those that were available were frequently incomplete.