Remote food safety assessments are useful but cannot replace a physical inspection, according to the Food Standards Agency.

Virtual food hygiene inspections are being used in the United Kingdom but local authorities cannot give a business a food hygiene rating based only on a digital overview.

Michael Jackson, head of the FSA’s Regulatory Compliance Division, said the global spread of coronavirus has brought an unprecedented set of challenges.

“During this difficult time, new and innovative ways to help local authorities form a view of food hygiene standards at businesses have been developed. These offer real potential for the future but have not yet been properly tried and tested,” he said.

“Our view is that, at present, remote food safety assessments conducted virtually are a useful tool to help inform a view of a business’s hygiene standards, but they cannot replace a physical inspection. Remote food safety assessments are not suitable for all businesses and where they have been used during the pandemic we will be evaluating the experience of local authorities and food businesses to determine the appropriate circumstances for them to be used to inform inspections in the longer term.”

A council’s experience
In the initial phases of the pandemic, FSA advised local authorities to defer planned inspections and focus resources on urgent reactive work, such as investigating foodborne outbreaks and doing remote assessments of poorly compliant and other high-risk businesses with onsite visits only where there was evidence of potentially serious public health risks.

In late June, the advice changed with the focus on resuming physical inspections for poorly compliant and high-risk businesses, including those that changed activities during the pandemic or reopened after a prolonged closure. Initial remote assessment will be used to target areas to focus on during the subsequent onsite visit to manage resources and minimize time onsite.

Tendring District Council’s environmental health team piloted Digital Inspections from Scores on the Doors (SOTD), allowing staff at the council in Essex, England, to inspect food premises remotely during the shutdown. The tool was put together after a conversation with Transparency Data when the country went into lockdown.

Tendring has been using virtual inspections for COVID-19 checks, low-risk food inspections, and to offer guidance; allowing staff to see the inside of premises when site visits were not possible and respond to questions quickly.

The council is speaking with the FSA about using virtual inspections and sharing findings from the work. The agency contacted the council to remind them the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) Brand Standard only permits ratings to be given following an inspection, partial inspection, or audit.

A wider conversation to be had
The FSA is gathering case studies from local authorities on their experience of using remote assessment to inform hygiene inspections. The agency will also be doing a formal evaluation looking at appropriate circumstances for using this approach in the longer term based on local authority and food businesses’ experiences. This will begin in the autumn.

Each business is given a score from A to D with A being the highest risk. For example, a hospital would be classed as A, while a corner shop with pre-wrapped sweets would be a D. Remote inspections are aimed at lower risk sites to help with the backlog facing councils due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of local authority resources. Many businesses adapted to takeaway services during the outbreak.

Limitations with virtual assessments include what can be observed using technology, and officers cannot use techniques associated with a physical inspection to find pest control, cross-contamination, and temperature issues. There can also be problems with the integrity of evidence supplied virtually.

View on the ground
An experienced environmental health officer (EHO) said technology certainly has a role to play as part of the job but not for inspections.

“An inspection is unannounced, here I am, I am looking everywhere. If it’s a pub that one of our contractors inspected and the toilet seats were kicked off, the door locks smashed and the cellar needed a paint. I am happy to accept a series of photos, a What’s App video and some invoices from the contractors and the FSA says we can comply with those,” the EHO told Food Safety Website.

“If it saves a long drive to premises just to see that I am fine with it but not an inspection that turns out a risk rating for how soon we go back, what we are doing and also the food hygiene rating. You want to be looking under everywhere, smelling and getting the feel for it. I can’t check the use-by dates and fridge door seals. I am not against modern technology but not for inspections. I’ve been to places for years and then they’ll let slip about some walk-in freezers upstairs. So what’s it going to be like with the food business operator holding the camera? You can’t replace an hour on-site with someone walking around with a phone.

“It’s the terminology and what you apply it to, an inspection is completely different than checking those little things. I am fully supportive of keeping the core code of practice, the brand standard, and the core interventions of inspection, re-visits, advice visits, and notices and blending in some of these other techniques. A picture can provide more intelligence to inform my next onsite inspection. We can give businesses an opportunity to send us stuff showing what they do. Use the technology, make it easier, make us better informed and give a business the opportunity to respond but not to replace the inspection.”

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