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Finding the right balance on food

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TWO reports into the horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal that erupted earlier this year have been published in the past couple of weeks. One, the result of an inquiry by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), broadly summarises developments to date and identifies lessons for the food chain.1 The other, discussing the results of an independent inquiry commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and conducted by Pat Troop, a former chief executive of the Health Protection Agency, looks more specifically at the FSA's handling of the affair.2 Despite their different remits, the two reports draw some remarkably similar conclusions.

This is most notable in relation to confusion about roles and responsibilities when the extent of the problem began to become apparent in January, when it was far from clear who was responsible for what (VR, January 26, 2013, vol 172, p 86). Both reports draw attention to changes in the FSA's remit following the Government's review of its ‘arm's length’ bodies after the General Election in 2010 and suggest that this might have resulted in confusion about the FSA's role, both inside and outside the agency. Among other things, the changes resulted in some of the FSA's responsibilities for food labelling and composition that were not related to food safety being transferred to Defra in England, and Professor Troop's report suggests that the fact that this was an authenticity rather than a food safety issue may have initially resulted in ‘some hesitancy’ on the part of the agency to act. The EFRACom report puts it more strongly, arguing that the FSA's ‘diminished role’ had led to a lack of clarity about where responsibility lay.

This journal expressed concern about the possible consequences for the FSA of the Government's review of its arm's length bodies when the review was in progress (VR, October 23, 2010, vol 167, p 632), and changes to the FSA's remit subsequently resulted in the Scottish Government deciding to establish an independent agency for Scotland (VR, July 7, 2012, vol 171, p 2). It is probably too much to hope the Government might admit that it got things wrong in 2010, but it should at least take heed of a recommendation from the EFRACom that it should ‘consider reversing the machinery of government changes made in 2010 and allowing the FSA to be one step removed from the two government departments it reports to’.

Being one step removed from government was one of the principles on which the FSA was founded in 2000 and it would be worrying to think that, as some of the comments in the EFRACom's report seem to suggest, the distance between them has shrunk. The EFRACom's report also emphasises that the FSA must primarily serve consumers and that it must ‘not be, or be seen to be, beholden to industry’. These, too, are important principles on which the agency was founded. They are areas where it is widely considered to have performed well over the years, and it would be sad to think of its position being eroded.

Both reports discuss a need to strengthen the FSA's surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities, and the need for it to be able to ensure that sampling and testing can be undertaken where necessary. The EFRACom argues that the FSA might need new statutory powers to enable it to ‘compel’ the industry to carry out tests and report the results, while Professor Troop suggests that this might instead be achieved through a collaborative approach. Discussing the role of local authorities and trading standards officers in helping to ensure standards, the EFRACom draws attention to the impact of budgetary cuts on levels of sampling, and different levels of sampling by different local authorities. It also expresses concern about declining numbers of public analysts and public laboratories to carry out tests.

Looking at the wider food chain, the EFRACom makes some useful points about the complex and international nature of food supply chains in Europe and about traceability within them. One of the more telling aspects of the horsemeat in ‘beef’ products episode is that, despite all the energy that has been devoted to trying to find out what happened, and despite systems being in place with a view to ensuring traceability, nobody seems to be quite sure about the point at which horsemeat entered the production cycle. No one seems to be in any doubt that a fraud has been committed but, as the EFRACom points out, so far, six months after the scandal emerged, no prosecutions have been brought either in the UK or Ireland, where the problem was first identified.

Discussing the results of EU-mandated testing for phenylbutazone residues in horses slaughtered for human consumption, the EFRACom notes that 14 of 836 UK samples of horsemeat tested positive; this, it points out, was the largest number of positive tests within the EU. It recommends that the Government should work with the EU to ensure the speedy introduction of a single national database for issuing horse passports in every EU member state. It also recommends that the system of testing horse carcases for the presence of phenylbutazone before they are released into the food chain, which was introduced by the FSA in February, should continue, with government and industry sharing the cost.

The horsemeat episode has shed light on a number of aspects of food production, highlighting the need not only to have structures in place to safeguard standards but also to make sure that systems and resources are available to ensure that standards are properly enforced. It has also underlined the importance of finding the right balance between adequate regulation and minimum ‘red tape’. The Government has commissioned another review on the back of the episode which is expected to report next spring (VR, July 6, 2013, vol 173, p 2). However, some of the lessons are already obvious and it should not wait until that review is completed before seeking improvements.

1. Accessed July 17, 2013

2. Accessed July 17, 2013

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