At-home food selling via Facebook, eBay and the like is all the rage thanks to lockdowns. The creativity is welcome, but are many businesses ignoring health and safety regulations? Nick Hughes reports.

Covid-19 has been a boon for home-based food businesses. Whether it’s furloughed chefs preparing restaurant-quality meals from their kitchens or domestic cooks knocking up hearty stews and curries for home delivery or collection, entrepreneurial types have found creative ways to make money from food during lockdowns.

About 44% of new food businesses started since the first lockdown are home-based, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Yet the rise in at-home food selling is also causing alarm among food safety professionals.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) recently expressed concern at the growing number of home food businesses that have sprung up during the covid lockdown. Often selling through social media and other informal networks and apps, many are not registering as food businesses as they are legally required to be, meaning local authorities cannot check that hygiene and food standards are being met. CIEH president Julie Barratt warned “they won’t cause big outbreaks of food poisoning, but there is every chance that they are making people ill”.

So what’s being done to strike the balance between encouraging the development of innovative foodservice models while managing the risk to consumers?

The concept of ‘social selling’, and the associated risk, is nothing new. Two years ago I investigated the trend for The Grocer and found multiple examples of individuals offering curries, samosas, pies, pastries and all manner of other foods for sale via platforms such as Facebook, eBay and Amazon. As one experienced environmental health practitioner (EHP) told me at the time: “The more you look the more you find.”

The most obvious health risk from at-home food production is where proper food hygiene practices are not being followed on storage, preparation and transport. Beyond that there are other serious concerns. Allergen information, for instance, should be provided both before the purchase of the food is completed, either in writing or over the phone, and again when the food is delivered. Yet such information is often difficult to find or entirely absent from online food listings.

Regulators, meanwhile, are struggling to keep up with the trend towards online selling both of home-cooked dishes and of products such as herbs and spices being traded in bulk over the internet. The CIEH notes the pandemic has already put local authority and environmental health teams under considerable strain with resources close to breaking point. As such, EHPs are having to focus on those businesses that pose the greatest risk.

That’s if they know those businesses exist. In a recent article for New Food magazine, Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, called food sold via the internet “the wild west of the food market” with businesses often unregistered and uninspected. “When I talk to many representatives from the food industry and I bring up this topic, they roll their eyes,” Elliott wrote. “They believe they are overregulated, yet just a few clicks away the same produce they sell can be sourced from vendors who probably don’t know what the FSA is, let alone worry about incurring its wrath.”

For a foodservice sector facing financial devastation from the impact of coronavirus, the risk of legitimate pubs and restaurants offering takeaways or home deliveries being undercut by unregistered domestic sellers is yet another bitter pill to swallow.

Elliott challenged the FSA to set out the steps it is taking to police at-home food businesses. Taking up the challenge, Julie Pierce, FSA director for Wales, information and science, wrote in New Food that Elliott was right to be concerned. “The trend for food sold over the internet is both growing and changing at a rapid rate. Finding a neat regulatory answer is difficult,” she stated.

Pierce noted that the FSA has been rolling out its digital ‘register a food business’ tool, which allows businesses to register digitally with their local authority using a smartphone, tablet or PC. Almost 200 local authorities are now using the system with 33,720 businesses registering since the start of the pandemic. The FSA ultimately wants all businesses, wherever they are based, to have access to this technology.

Those businesses that do register, however, are unlikely to be inspected any time soon. Environmental health teams were already losing headcount before the pandemic as a result of swingeing local authority cuts. Hygiene inspections were then put on hold during the first lockdown and since then a scaled-back operation has focused on high-risk cases.

EHPs have turned to video calls to help clear the backlog of inspections as well as to offer guidance to new sellers, but as Barratt told BBC News, remote inspections are unable to reveal things like ingredients past their use-by date, or rat droppings under the cooker.

Pierce revealed the FSA has also been working closely with key food delivery aggregators like Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Just Eat to use the FSA’s food hygiene rating scheme to determine whether they will allow businesses onto their platforms. Just Eat now displays the official food hygiene rating of every restaurant partner for customers to see. Last summer, the company revealed it had removed 35 restaurants from its register for irregularities around food hygiene ratings.

The FSA now wants other platforms to work with it collaboratively and take responsibility for the food businesses selling through their sites, according to Pierce. Following The Grocer report, eBay added information about the requirement to register as a food business to its food safety policy. But given the responsibility to adhere to relevant food laws is on the seller, social media giants have little incentive to properly police the food being offered via their platforms. Meanwhile, the number of platforms through which people can offer food is proliferating all the time.

Experts suggest the aim should not be to stifle the development of new food business models, but to bring them within the regulatory orbit in a way that protects the public. “We don’t want to discourage businesses, we want to work with them to get it right first time,” said Barrett, adding that the best way for that to happen was for new businesses to register with their local authorities and talk to their environmental health teams before opening. “That way they can open with confidence and peace of mind that they are supporting their local communities, not harming them.”