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Fundamental questions on food

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THERE'S nothing like a food scandal to spawn reviews and the horsemeat in beef products scandal that erupted earlier this year is no exception. The report of an independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to look at its handling of the affair is expected any day now while, only last week, Defra issued a call for evidence for another review, which will be examining the ‘integrity and assurance of food supply networks’.1 This is a pretty big subject, as anyone who remembers the effort put into the reviews that led to the FSA being established in 2000 will recognise. The review is being undertaken by Professor Chris Elliott, of Queens University Belfast. Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at Defra, has asked him to report by next spring.

The terms of reference are fairly extensive but, briefly, the aim of the review will be to advise agriculture and health ministers, and also industry, on ‘issues which impact on consumer confidence in the authenticity of food products, including any systematic failures in food supply networks and systems of oversight with implications for food safety and public health, and to make recommendations’. As the call for evidence points out, ‘a comprehensive and effective review requires all those involved in food supply and its governance and regulation to have the opportunity to provide their perspective on the issues which impact upon resilience and upon consumer confidence’ – and all those involved are invited to contribute.

The call for evidence poses no fewer than 29 questions. Some of these, such as ‘Do consumers fully understand the way industry describes the composition and quality of the products on sale?’ seem quite specific and are likely to elicit a straightforward answer; others, such as ‘What measures need to be taken by the UK food industry and government to increase consumers’ trust in the integrity of the food supply systems?' and ‘How can government, food businesses and regulators better identify new and emerging forms of food fraud?’ are much more open ended. Given the long history of debate on the subject, questions such as ‘What additional information does the public need to be offered about food content and processing techniques? How can this information be conveyed in an easy to understand manner?’ seem likely to elicit a wide range of views, as, indeed, does the question ‘Do government decisions about regulation and inspection get the balance right between producer, processor, retailer and consumer?’. The question ‘Whose responsibility is it to give the public assurances about the safety and quality of food?’ raises a fundamental issue that needs to be resolved, not least because, as the horsemeat scandal began to unfold, where the buck stopped was anything but clear (VR, January 26, 2013, vol 172, p 86).

Veterinarians play a key role in helping to ensure integrity in the food chain but, as the Veterinary Development Council highlighted in a report published last year, this role needs to be developed further (VR, May 12, 2012, vol 170, pp 479-480). The benefits of a ‘farm-to-fork’ approach to food safety are well recognised and their role could become even more important as new approaches to meat inspection are introduced (see p 3 of this issue) and a cash-strapped Government continues to transfer some of its responsibilities from the public to the private sector.

The questions set out in the call for evidence raise many issues, both philosophical and practical, and it will be interesting to see how the review makes sense of the wide range of responses that is likely to result. There is nothing wrong with going ‘back to basics’ for the purposes of a review, and fundamental questions do need to be asked. However, this is by no means the first time that the question of how best to ensure integrity and assurance in the food chain has been examined and it will be important to make use of and build on that experience as new systems and structures are developed.

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