Environmental health officers (EHOs) are in chronic short supply. A survey conducted by the BBC earlier this week highlighted that there are now more than 700 vacancies for EHOs across the country and that nearly two-thirds of local authorities admit their environmental health departments are seriously understaffed.
This is a grave problem, which is forcing local authorities to slash the number of random spot checks their officers make on restaurants and catering outlets. While this might be welcomed by some operators, it could have serious implications for the eating-out market, particularly if the lack of policing leads to a rise in food-poisoning cases and Joe Public loses confidence in dining out of the home.
Of course, following the Government's latest plans for EHOs to police liquor licensing and the partial ban on smoking, the burden on an already overstretched workforce is set to get far worse.
Clearly, the Government needs more officers on the ground. It should act now to help the service recruit and retain more staff, otherwise it will not be able to police its new laws, let alone maintain public safety.
Talking of which, in this issue we also highlight changes to the food hygiene laws.
From 1 January 2006, not only will catering businesses be required to have a food safety management system based on HACCP (hazard analysis, critical control points), as is currently the case, but they will also be expected to document what they do to produce food that is safe to eat.
This additional requirement is significant for the industry, and while many conscientious operators might already have such a system established, there will be some that don't.
Also new is a procedure enabling officials to close kitchens on the spot without recourse to the courts - controversial stuff.