Workforce shortages and food safety: Insights from FSA’s Chair

Posted: 24 November 2023 | , | No comments yet

In this Q&A, New Food speaks to Professor Susan Jebb, Chair of the Food Standards Agency about the “Our Food” report and how workforce shortages must being addressed to strengthen food safety in the UK.

Food hygiene rating

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Foods Standards Scotland (FSS) unveiled the “Our Food” report for 2022 just a few weeks ago, flagging concerns regarding how staff shortages could make it more difficult to identify food safety threats within the industry.

To find out more about the steps that the FSA is taking to address workforce shortages after publicly voicing its food safety concerns, New Food’s Assistant Editor Grace Galler spoke to Professor Susan Jebb, Chair of the FSA. 

In this interview, Jebb emphasises the resilience of food standards amidst multifaceted pressures while raising concerns about workforce shortages in crucial roles such as food inspectors and veterinarians. This conversation outlines the potential implications on food safety, consumer trust, and the strategies the FSA is pursuing to address these pressing issues.

You recently unveiled the annual ‘Our Food’ report, what were some of its key findings?

Susan Jebb (SJ): The report highlights the good news that, overall, food standards remained stable in 2022, despite pressures including inflation, labour shortages and the war in Ukraine.

Maintaining high food standards across the UK doesn’t happen by chance, it’s down to the hard work and dedication of people in the food system who ensure our food is safe and what it says it is and I would like to take the opportunity to thank them for their all their hard work.

It also comes from having a robust assurance system in place. There are three key lines of defence: safety checks by food businesses themselves, local authority inspections and assurance from the FSA and FSS.

But the report also identifies shortages in key occupations needed to keep food safe, such as vets and food inspectors. Without enough people with the right skills to deliver essential food controls, it will be more difficult to identify, monitor and respond to risks to food safety in the future, leaving consumers and businesses vulnerable.

What actions has the FSA taken to address the workforce shortages highlighted in the report?

SJ: I think it’s important that we’ve made our concerns public, and I hope that this will help stimulate the action that is needed. There are systemic challenges affecting the jobs that provide safety, welfare and authenticity checks on food that the FSA cannot tackle alone.

That is why we are asking governments across the UK, Local Authorities, professional bodies and industry to work with us to address these matters in the coming year so that people in the UK can continue to have food they can trust, and the strong reputation of British food abroad is maintained.

The FSA is committed to supporting local authorities by modernising regulations. Our reform programme aims to help local authorities make the best use of their resources by targeting the areas of greatest risk, providing the checks on food premises and factories that ensure standards for safety and authenticity are met.

FSA to launch a food fraud hotline

The other area of concern that we highlight in the report is the workforce of Official Veterinarians (OVs) who carry out the vital checks in abattoirs and cutting plants. A long-term solution to the vet capacity issue across the UK is needed and we are working to raise awareness of the need to change the working conditions, the culture and the role itself to make official vet work in abattoirs more attractive to UK trained veterinarians.

The report revealed a 14 percent decline in food hygiene posts in Local Authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the last decade, how can the FSA help address these shortages?

SJ: Local Authority (LA) resources are under pressure generally and that isn’t something the FSA can fix. However, we are committed to helping to maintain an appropriate level of qualified and competent officers in the food regulation system, and we are working to find solutions to make it easier for people to achieve the qualifications they need to start in posts.

For example, we have set up a project to help address the recruitment and retention issues faced by LAs. This will involve working with stakeholders to review the implementation of the competency framework for officers. In addition, we will ensure that the local authority training offered by the FSA continue to target the right areas and we will be reviewing the qualifications required for local authority food and feed officers to see if we can introduce additional flexibilities.


But it’s not just food hygiene posts which are being affected, the annual report identified the UK veterinary profession has experienced a 27 percent decline in people joining the profession between 2019 and 2022. Can you speak more on this?

SJ: Yes, the shortage of vets has been apparent for the past few years as we’ve seen a drop in the number of Official Veterinarians coming to UK from abroad and at the same time, the demands on vets have increased. This is a really important issue for the FSA. Abattoirs require a permanent OV present every day, to carry out food safety and animal health and welfare checks. Without sufficient vets there is a risk that we may not be able to provide OVs in all abattoirs, impacting on their operation, ability to trade and with that, animal health and welfare and the supply of safe food to consumers.

vet checking cow

Jebb shares that there has been a drop in the number of official veterinarians coming to UK from abroad although the demand placed on vets has increased

I’m proud of the fact that during the EU Exit and the Covid-19 pandemic we were able to maintain 100 percent service delivery in abattoirs due to the efforts of our own vets, the work of our service delivery partner, Eville and Jones, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, but we need to find a more sustainable solution which gives food businesses confidence for the future.

This will need the combined efforts of Government, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and the Vet Schools – to tackle the specific and complex challenges in recruitment and retention of vets and to make public health careers more appealing to UK graduates.

If we are unable to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of OVs then we risk not being able to provide a full service to the British meat industry, which is worth £8.2 billion a year to the UK.

What are the potential consequences for consumers and businesses if these shortages persist?

SJ: If we do not maintain sufficient supply of experienced professionals to carry out local authority inspections it is highly likely that food safety issues may go unchecked and uncorrected in the future.

People in the UK have high levels of trust in the standards of food produced here and we want to keep it that way. Staff shortages puts both consumer safety and the reputation of food businesses at risk. It would also impact on the UK’s reputation as a trusted global trading partner.

You mentioned the impact of workforce shortages on food crime, which is estimated to cost the UK up to £2 billion per year, what is the FSA doing to help tackle criminal activity across the food sector?

SJ: A reduction in the number of food standards officers also raises concerns that businesses could be more susceptible to food crime, particularly in the face of cost-of-living pressures where businesses may be looking to cut costs and where criminals increasingly see food, especially meat, as a high value commodity.

Earlier this year, the FSA set up a Food Fraud Industry Working Group, to explore where the food system could be further strengthened.

Thanks to the efforts of the Working Group, we have implemented several new measures to supplement or improve the activity we already undertake through our National Food Crime Unit, including:

  • launching a new freephone number for the food fraud confidential hotline to make it easier for people to speak up and share their concerns;
  • working with industry on ways to encourage food fraud whistleblowing;
  • strengthening information sharing arrangements between the third-party auditors used by food businesses, and the FSA, to help prevent criminal activity; improving how the FSA issues intelligence-based alerts to better warn food businesses about potential food fraud in supply chains.

In addition, we’re continuing to strengthen our response to food crime, through our work to secure access to additional investigative powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984. These additional powers would allow the FSA’s food crime officers to investigate food crime more effectively, with greater independence and appropriate scrutiny.



Susan JebbProfessor Susan Jebb is one of the country’s leading scientists, a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Her recent research has focused on the treatment of obesity and interventions to encourage healthy and sustainable diets.

Susan has a long-standing interest in the translation of scientific evidence into policy and was the Science Advisor to the Government Office for Science Foresight report on obesity in 2007 and is currently an advisor to the National Food Strategy. She has previously chaired the cross-government expert advisory group on obesity (2007–2011), the Department of Health responsibility deal food network (2011–2015) and public health advisory committees for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2013-2018).  She was awarded an OBE in 2008 for services to public health.

Susan holds a part-time appointment at the University of Oxford alongside the role as Chair of FSA.