It is just over 6 months ago that the nagging suspicion that all was not well in the world of cheap beef products exploded onto the media agenda. The Irish had found horse in their beef and ready meals, cheap burgers and other products in the UK were found to equally contaminated. Cue, outrage – on which I have written before. Followed swiftly by an epidemic of product testing, some finger pointing and a number of official enquiries, though as yet no prosecutions.
And it is not over yet, as the 6 month anniversary was marked by another announcement of horse presence where it should not be – in this case Latvian pies on sale in the UK.
In Scotland there has been between April and June an Expert Advisory Group looking into the issue. This small group, set up under the chairmanship of the former Chief Vet Professor Jim Scudamore was tasked with reporting quickly against the following terms of reference:
“To consider what lessons can be learned from the recent food fraud scandal with respect to potential improvements to the food and feed safety and standards regime in Scotland. Specifically the group should make recommendations both for measures that could be implemented by the Food Standards Agency in Scotland or Local Authorities in the near future, and measures that could be taken in the longer term by the New Food Body that is to be established in Scotland. The Group should consider:
- Risk analysis
The group, of which I was a member, set out to report to the Scottish Government both any short term recommendations and also on longer term issues for the New Food Body in Scotland which is being set up to replace the Food Standards Agency.
Whilst we concluded that the horsemeat fraud issue was handled well in Scotland, the report includes short term recommendations for the Scottish Government, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Scotland and local authorities, as well as long term recommendations for the new food body.
These recommendations cover the introduction of improved risk assessment procedures for identifying new areas of risk, testing and surveillance and the need to ensure appropriate statutory powers and sanctions are in place to deal with food standards incidents.
The Scottish Government will now consider the report and its recommendations and respond formally in early Autumn.
Coverage thus far has been rather muted it would seem, though one interesting (union oriented) perspective can be found here.
As one of the members of the EAG I think at this point I don’t want to add too much to the report and let people read and respond to it at their own pace. I will however reflect on a few things that perhaps surprised me (may be they should not have) during the process:
- The great distinction between food safety and food standards. At one level I understand this – if food is not safe and could damage or kill then there is an obvious risk to be minimised – but the converse almost seems like, if it’s a standards issue then it is not that serious. But of course what starts out as a standards issue could end up as a safety issue (if people adulterate food are they really concerned with what?) and in any case that is no justification for people not receiving what is described and they have paid for. Hence our concern to look at powers and sanctions in the standards area.
- The relative lack of intelligent led horizon scanning. Everyone has said – with hindsight – we should have been asking where all the horses were going and what was the potential opportunity opened up by the falling price of horse and the rising price of beef? Easy to say in hindsight but perhaps we need to be cleverer and try to spot the “next horse”?
- The length and confusion of some of the supply chains in this industry, especially where cheaper products are concerned. I knew some chains were long, but that long! There is so much to be said for local and shorter supply chains and better traceability and authenticity – hence why small butchers gained quite a lot of trade in the immediate period of the scandal. Consumers were seeking reassurance and will be more demanding of this in the future one suspects (and hopes).
There is much more in the report and people can make up their own minds on whether we have covered it correctly and entirely and have proposed suitable recommendations. But I think it is worth a read if you are interested in what happened and how we might seek to avoid it again, or react fully if such an event does happen, whatever the product.