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Food safety checks 'in decline'
Some local authorities are struggling to ensure businesses comply with food safety rules, according to new research.
A study by consumer watchdog Which? showed that in some areas of the country more than a third of high and medium-risk food businesses are not abiding by hygiene rules, while work to check standards such as the accuracy of food labels is described as "patchy".
The organisation said the report places fresh doubts on the food industry following last year's horsemeat scandal.
Bexley in south east London is the poorest-performing local authority, with five other London councils in the bottom 10, according to the research, which took into account premises such as hospitals, care homes, restaurants, takeaways, retailers and food suppliers.
Cherwell District Council in north Oxfordshire came top out of 395 local authorities in the UK.
The rankings were based on three criteria: the proportion of high or medium-risk premises that were "broadly compliant" with food hygiene requirements, the percentage of premises that have received a risk rating, and the proportion of inspections and other follow-ups required that were actually carried out.
The hygiene risk of a business is based on factors including the type of food, the number of consumers at risk and the method of handling food.
Which? compiled the rankings using data submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) by local authorities.
The watchdog also found that overall food testing fell by 6.8% from the previous year, and testing for labelling and presentation fell by 16.2%.
No official hygiene sampling was carried out at all by Bexley, Christchurch, Isles of Scilly, Medway, Tamworth, West Lindsey and West Yorkshire authorities in 2012/13.
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: " No one wants another horsemeat fiasco, so it is very worrying that local authority food checks are in decline. We want to see a more strategic approach to food law enforcement that makes the best use of limited resources and responds effectively to the huge challenges facing the food supply chain."
Responding to the study, Nick Worth, the Local Government Association's regulation spokesman, said: " Councils are working hard to maintain and improve food safety standards despite the pressure that significant Government funding cuts are placing on everyday services.
"Random sampling is just one tool available to councils and a reduction in testing does not mean an increased safety risk to the public. Targeting high-risk businesses and acting on complaints is a far more effective use of their limited resources and also allows councils to free up responsible businesses from unnecessary inspections and red tape.
"It is ultimately the responsibility of food manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to ensure the products they produce or sell comply fully with food law, are fit for consumption and won't risk public safety."
The 10 worst-performing local authorities according to the research are:
4. West Dunbartonshire
Commenting on the findings, Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University, Belfast, said: "The food supply systems in the UK are very safe. Compared with other parts of the world, we have one of the safest food supply systems in the world.
"I think what the Which? report is indicating very clearly is that, because of the pressures that are on local authorities in relation to budget cuts, they are finding it very difficult to deliver the quality of service that is required."
Prof Elliott told BBC Breakfast that, a year since the horse meat scandal emerged, there had been a "massive effort" both in the UK food industry and the UK Government to put into place "measures that will stop these types of food crime happening again".
He said there were 25,000 different food products sold each day in UK retail sector.
"It is an enormous task making sure that that material is safe and authentic," he said.
"What is happening now both in industry and government is that those types of food materials which are most vulnerable to fraud are getting the highest level of attention.
"Obviously, it started off with red meat but there are many, many other food commodities now that must be checked regularly to make sure that what we are buying as consumers is actually what is says on the label."