Before the current horsemeat scandal broke we were getting feedback from members in Environmental Health departments that staffing cuts were undermining their work in protecting the public. We therefore sought to ascertain the facts through Freedom of Information requests and two surveys of UNISON members.
Today, we publish the results and they confirm cuts to local council environmental health departments and to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are putting public health at risk.
The total number of qualified Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) employed by 30 of Scotland’s 32 councils, has gone down by 13% between 2008/9 (519) and 20011/12 (450). There has been an even bigger drop in other staff carrying out an enforcement role in environmental health departments, 507 down to 423 in the same period or 17%. In addition the number of meat inspectors has more than halved in Scotland since 2003, down from 170 to 75, a shocking statistic in the light of the current horsemeat scandal.
When we asked the staff how they would describe the cuts, 56% of staff said that their team has seen “major” cuts, with a further 10% describing cuts as “severe”, and more than 95% expecting further cutbacks and job losses in the next couple of years.
As is often the case with this type of survey it is the additional comments that say as much as the raw statistics.
One member working on food safety in an environmental health department said: “We have not submitted any samples for food in ten months!” Another said, “There are far too few staff for the amount of food premises and other additional jobs required to be carried out by EHOs."
As we have been warning for some time our members can see departments depleted, with the loss of experienced staff, ‘lighter touch’ regulation, fewer proactive inspections, preventive and educational work. Other essential services, particularly health and safety are being cut back drastically.
While in the current climate the focus is not unreasonably on food safety, we should also not forget the health and safety function EHO’s undertake. As one member put it:
“I have major fears about the changes to health and safety inspections having inspected a lot of businesses in the last 7 years. About 75% of them did not have risk assessments or any awareness of the need to do them. Most knew nothing about accident reporting regulations.”
Health and safety should be about preventing accidents. For example, the legionnaire’s outbreak in Edinburgh again followed a cut in inspections. However, EHO’s simply don’t have the time to do preventative work. What we are seeing in relation to horsemeat today will be replicated in other areas, unless we stop the cuts and the obsession with light touch regulation.
I will finish with one final quote that for me says it all:
“I have spent time with parents whose child has been desperately ill with Ecoli poisoning. It is awful and preventable. We can help prevent this and other tragic things happening. But this will become less and less often. A rise in public health related illness and injury will happen. But possibly more gradually than most think. Un-noticed maybe. But it will happen.”