Research commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has provided insight to ongoing staffing issues experienced by UK food control authorities, and how recruitment and retention can be improved.

In its most recent annual report, FSA noted reductions in local authority staffing across multiple functions. FSA reported that the number of food safety allocated posts supported by local authorities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 2022 has fallen by nearly 14 percent since 2011–2012, and that one in seven (13.7 percent) positions was vacant. In Scotland, the shortage is more severe, as the number of occupied food law posts fell by just over 25 percent compared to 2016–2017.

Additionally, FSA observed a 45.1 percent drop in the number of food standards officer allocated posts between 2011–2012 and 2021–2022 in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. A survey published in 2020 found that trading standards officer staffing levels fell between 30 percent and 50 percent across the UK between 2008–2009 and 2018–2019.

Over half of the local authorities in the UK reported that they did not believe they had sufficient expertise to cover their full range of trading standards responsibilities, and that the ageing trading standards workforce was a threat to future professional capacity.

To understand more about the barriers and solutions to retention and recruitment of qualified local authority officers, FSA commissioned Ipsos UK to carry out an initial phase of research across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. A combination of online focus groups and in-depth interviews were conducted with key stakeholders, including current local authority officers and managers, former local authority employees, education providers, professional and leadership bodies, students, and apprentices.

Participants attributed issues with recruitment to a lack of awareness of food control careers among the workforce and school graduates, the complexity of the qualification system to these careers, and financial constraints and workload barriers to relevant courses that would qualify someone for a local authority food control career. Additionally, recruiting people along relevant education pathways to careers in food control is restricted by resource constraints leading to insufficient training, and low pay for high expectations when compared to other local authority roles and roles elsewhere.

Several issues were also highlighted in regard to retention, such as a lack of career progression opportunities, increased workloads, the burden of continued professional development without support, the UK’s exit from the EU and the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the nature of the role, and compensation and work-life balance. The FSA Competency Framework, which outlines what officers’ qualifications allow them to do and what roles they can apply for, was also determined to be difficult to use and hard to understand.

A number of suggestions for improving recruitment and retention were highlighted, such as promotion of food control careers among local authorities, schools, and universities; greater collaboration across FSA and government departments with regulatory responsibilities and education providers; and attracting more new students to training by promoting apprenticeship routes and simplifying qualification requirements.

FSA’s next step following the Ipsos UK report is to work with key stakeholders to assess the findings and recommendations from participants. FSA will identify which findings and recommendations are actionable by the agency and design a project to tackle these issues. The agency also hopes to bring together stakeholders to assess the findings and recommendations that do not fall within FSA’s purview and encourage collaboration to address these issues.