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Trust and regulation

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IT has not been on anything like the same scale, but news last week that horsemeat had found its way into some ‘beef burgers’ on sale in Irish and UK supermarkets created the kind of furore last seen in Britain in the late 1990s, when the nation had been rocked by a series of food scares, starting with salmonella in eggs and progressing to BSE. That this has not happened for so long can in large part be attributed to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which was established in 2000 in direct response to those crises and has done much to help raise standards and improve public confidence since. It would be unfortunate if confidence in the FSA were to be dented by this latest episode and it must act quickly to ensure that this is not the case. Public perception is all important here which, having been founded on the principle of being open and transparent, the agency knows only too well.

The FSA stressed last week that, on the basis of the evidence, there was no food safety risk to consumers from the products concerned. However, as the Society of Chief Environmental Health Officers in Scotland was widely reported as saying, the original source of the horsemeat had not been identified so there was no way of knowing this for certain, and the FSA might have been wise to qualify its statement. The FSA also reported that, having been alerted to the problem by the Irish authorities, it had initiated a programme to investigate the authenticity of a range of meat products. This, clearly, is an appropriate response, though it will inevitably be seen by some as closing the stable door after the horsemeat has been bolted.

One of the aims when the FSA was established as a non-ministerial government department in 2000 was to make clear where the buck stops on food safety, and where responsibility lies. This was anything but clear last week, with the Prime Minister pointing out that it is retailers who have to be responsible for what they sell and where it has come from, and retailers pointing to their suppliers. In a debate in the House of Commons on January 17, David Heath, minister of state at Defra, repeatedly referred to the responsibilities of the FSA, while at the same time being asked why no health ministers were present for the debate, as the FSA is a responsibility of the Department of Health. (He replied that the relevant health minister was abroad.) The FSA was reorganised as a result of the Government's review of its arm's-length bodies in 2010, with some of its responsibilities being transferred, and it seems possible that some of these responsibilities could have been confused in the process. Meanwhile, as a result of the reorganisation brought about by the review, the Scottish Government has decided to set up its own Food Standards Agency, which has the potential to confuse things further (VR, July 7, 2012, vol 171, p 2).

Much of the debate in Parliament was party political but some useful questions were raised. They concerned, for example, the importance of ensuring that food is correctly labelled and whether, given cuts in the number of trading standards officers and the FSA's budget in recent years, the Government could be confident that this is the case. At a time when the Government is seeking to reduce unnecessary burdens on the industry, the debate also raised the question about the extent to which ‘light touch’ regulation is appropriate. One can see where the minister was coming from when he warned MPs not to ‘talk down’ the British food industry on the basis of this incident at a time when standards in the industry are high – but unfortunately such incidents undermine confidence in the industry as a whole and it is precisely this kind of incident that demonstrates why a robust, independent and open system of regulation remains necessary. Things have moved on in the past 20 years. However, as BSE and other food scares have demonstrated, public confidence is fragile, and it would be unfortunate if the lessons of the 1990s had to be learned all over again.

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