Another horsemeat scandal?

With the pandemic and lockdown woes foodservice sector is under strain. Consumers know this and it has got some worried that businesses might start to “cut corners”, according to research by the Food Standards Agency.

"The thing I'm concerned about when restaurants eventually open is how long stuff's been in that freezer so I won't be going for the first couple of weeks,” one respondent told Ipsos Mori as part of the FSA’s consumer attitudes tracker.

UK Hospitality this week warned of a “glut” of wasted food and drink that could run into millions of pounds as restaurants and bars in London and parts of the south east moved into tier 3 restrictions.

“So many pubs, restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels, having invested so much to make their venues safe, are only just clinging on by the skin of their teeth, but will be forced to take another huge hit,” said chief executive Kate Nicholls.

Consumers are certainly showing heightened awareness of the financial pressure restaurants and cafés are under after months of disruption, according to the FSA. “‘Horsemeat’ remained a powerful reference point for their imaginations: might ‘fakes’ like that happen again?” the report reads.

Experts were quick to sound warnings of food crime in the early months of the pandemic. Supply chains have been under strain, which makes relabelling and substitution more tempting (and potentially lucrative). New suppliers and businesses have also emerged, but are they being tracked and tested as diligently?

“Now more than ever, organisations’ reputations are in the firing line, and a food fraud scandal could be catastrophic to an already-stretched industry,” noted Kimberly Carey Coffin, global technical director at Lloyd’s Register in the summer. Businesses need to remain vigilant, she said.

The FSA has also spotted a potential problem. Trust in the UK’s food system appears to remain high but an expert panel pulled together by the watchdog highlighted early on that “reduced inspection and enforcement actions” were going to be an issue. Potentially so too food crime: they couldn’t be certain if this was short-term or long-term but it was deemed to “most important” trend relating to food policy.

Diversification of food businesses and reliance on takeaways were other main areas of concern. Takeaways have largely remained open but a “high proportion” of those have lower food hygiene ratings. The FSA’s panel noted: “The takeaway sector often struggle to comply with allergen and other food safety requirements. No planned inspections may lead to lowering of standards, shortcuts, risks not being controlled.”

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