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Providing assurance on food

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THE horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal earlier this year did nothing to improve public confidence in the food chain. Confidence in the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which appeared to get off to a shaky start as the problem began to emerge, was also dented, although fortunately that damage seems not to have been terminal. So far, at least three inquiries have looked at the FSA's handling of the affair – one by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) as well as one commissioned by the FSA itself (VR, July 20, 2013, vol 173, p 56) and, more recently, an inquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO). All three have reached a similar conclusion. This is that changes in the FSA's remit following the Government's review of its arm's length bodies in 2010, which resulted in responsibilities being reallocated between the FSA, Defra and the Department of Health, led to confusion both inside and outside the agency about who was responsible for food authenticity issues, which initially resulted in ‘some hesitancy’ on the part of the agency to act. The report from the NAO, which was published earlier this month,1 puts this quite strongly, commenting that ‘A split since 2010 in the responsibilities for food policy in England has led to confusion among stakeholders and no obvious benefit to those implementing controls’ and that ‘One of the consequences of the Machinery of Government change is that intelligence sharing has been weakened’.

A report from the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in 2010 described the Government's review of its arm's length bodies as having been rushed, poorly handled and inadequately thought through; in the words of the committee's chairman, the review had been ‘botched’ (VR, January 15, 2011, vol 168,  p 34). Meanwhile, the changes made to the FSA in England resulted in Scotland deciding to establish its own independent agency (VR, July 7, 2012, vol 171, p 2).

One would have thought that all this might lead the Government to acknowledge that it might perhaps have got one or two things wrong in 2010, but apparently not. In a response this month to the report from the EFRACom in July, the Government states firmly that it ‘does not accept that the current division of responsibilities between Defra and the FSA undermined the response to the horsemeat incident’.2 It also firmly denies that either it or the FSA was slow to respond to the incident, noting that ‘the FSA was informed that adulteration of product had taken place on 14 January 2013, and responded decisively within hours, initiating investigations into the supply chain and working with colleagues across Government, the devolved administrations, local authorities and with counterparts in Europe’. Responding to a comment from the EFRACom that the FSA must be independent and ‘must not be, or seen to be, beholden to industry’, the Government states: ‘The FSA is absolutely independent of industry. It has a single statutory objective of protecting consumers, and its strategic plan makes clear that it will put the health of consumers first.’ Such independence is clearly vital and, indeed, was one of the principles on which the FSA was founded in 2000, following BSE and other food scares in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Government's response refers on a number of occasions to the responsibilities of the food industry itself to ensure that standards are being met, while also pointing out the regulatory environment should not be too burdensome. It notes, for example, that it has made it clear that, ‘following the vulnerabilities highlighted by the horsemeat incident, all food businesses, including large food retailers, need to review their own systems and test their products to demonstrate to consumers that they are in control of their supply chains’. At the same time, it says it is ‘mindful of the costs to industry and the need to apply better regulation principles to ensure the right balance between protecting consumers and burdens on business and enforcement bodies’. Such comments reflect its approach to regulation generally. There is obviously a balance to be struck between regulation and industrial competitiveness; the question is, where should that balance lie? In general, the aim, so far as possible, should be to prevent such incidents happening in the first place. For food, as in other areas where public confidence is an issue, the question also arises as to whether ‘better’ regulation necessarily means less regulation.

Resource issues also feature in the reports into the horsemeat scandal with, for example, the NAO and EFRACom reports both referring to a decline in the number of public analysts in England in recent years and, with local authorities facing other demands on increasingly limited budgets, reduced testing by local authorities. This is clearly of concern because, however good the arrangements might be in theory, it is no use having a regulatory framework in place if you don't have the resources and infrastructure to support and enforce it.

The horsemeat affair raised wider issues than the specific responsibilities of the FSA and the Government but, looking to the future, it is important to get these responsibilities right. In the meantime, the Government has commissioned a further review on the back of the incident, which is being undertaken by Professor Chris Elliott of Queen's University Belfast. This is looking into the ‘integrity and assurance of food supply networks’ and he is expected to report next spring. As Veterinary Record commented in July, this is a pretty big subject (VR, July 6, 2013, vol 173, p 2). It will be interesting to see how the Government and the industry respond.

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