A recent study exploring the use of a digital technologies for retail food safety inspections in the EU has revealed existing opportunities to improve inspection consistency through digitalization, as well as the barriers that exist to adopting a digital environment. The study was funded by the Barcelona Public Health Agency in Spain.

The study was conducted to fill knowledge gaps about the extent to which digital technologies are used by EU competent authorities for food safety inspections at retail establishments. To collect information, following the experience of developing and implementing a digital environment during inspections in Barcelona, Spain by the Barcelona Public Health Agency, an initial questionnaire was distributed to competent authorities. The survey comprised 30 questions across seven topics:

  1. The respondent’s profile and territory
  2. The respondent’s use of a digital environment during inspections
  3. Reasons for using a digital environment during inspections, including both internal and external motivations
  4. Results of using a digital environment, including how the respondent was personally impacted and beyond
  5. Inspection processes carried out through a digital environment, both during and after inspections
  6. The development and implementation process of a digital environment during inspections
  7. Reasons for not using a digital environment during inspections.

The survey was distributed online during April–May 2022 to competent authorities in all 27 EU Member States through the Heads of Food Safety Agencies group. A total of 88 competent authorities across 15 countries responded to the questionnaire.

Of those who responded to the survey, 62.5 percent reported using a digital environment during inspections in some capacity, with the most popular internal reasons for using digital technologies being standardization of the documentation procedure for data during inspections (80 percent), ensuring that all data is available to prepare inspections (69.1 percent), and avoiding duplicate work for officers during inspection (54.5 percent). Regarding external motivations for digitalization, authorities most agreed with the need to technologically modernize public administration (54.5 percent) and to respond to food business operators’ (FBOs’) desire to have access to inspection data and results (52.7 percent). The majority of authorities who reported using a digital environment described benefits such as improved communication and data exchange with FBOs, the reduction of paper use, data standardization, and modernization of public administration.

Of the food safety inspection processes conducted through a digital environment during inspections by authorities, having access to reports of past inspections was the most indicated process, followed by automatic generation of digital inspection reports based on template documents. When asked about which processes were carried out through a digital environment post-inspection, authorities reported storing reports in digital format and reporting annual official control and sampling data to the national authorities, the European Commission, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Respondents reported that the development and implementation process of digital inspection environments was facilitated mostly by internal personnel, although external personnel was involved in approximately two-thirds of instances. The involvement of management in the development of processes was reported to be moderate, whereas the engagement, involvement, and motivation of officers were reported as high. Authorities indicated training workshops and educational materials as the most common activities used to prepare officers for digital inspection environments.

Of the 37.5 of competent authorities who reported not using a digital environment during inspections, 39.4 percent equally and totally agreed that such an environment was not used due to lack of budget and technological constraints, followed by lack or shortage of information technology personnel at 33.3 percent. In addition, through open-ended comments, authorities provided further reasons for not using digital inspection technologies, including the coexistence of different and non-interoperable digital systems in public administration and lack of Internet connection at the food premises.

Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that the potential and opportunities of digital technologies should be used primarily as decision support tools with the aim of standardizing the delivery of inspections, thereby increasing consistency in the delivery of official controls.