THE LONG-awaited review into the horse-meat scandal has made a series of recommendations that foodservice businesses ignore at their peril.
The horse-meat scandal may be nearly two years old but the fallout from the affair continues.
In September the long-awaited Elliott review into the “integrity and assurance of food supply chains” was published. In it, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast set out a strategy for a national food crime prevention framework that requires both government and industry to put in place measures to prevent a repeat of Horsegate.
But will anything change?
The most eye-catching recommendation – not least for what it says about the vulnerability of the food system to organised crime – is for the creation of a national food crime unit that would be charged with identifying and policing food crime in the UK.
Despite government scepticism about the presence of organised crime in the food chain, the recommendation was immediately accepted and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has already begun the task of assembling the unit. But scrutiny of whether the unit meets the detailed model set out in Elliott’s report is needed. At its recent board meeting the FSA revealed that between the start of the horse-meat scandal and the end of the 2015/16 financial year its budget will have been chopped by £22m. With a food crime unit estimated to cost £2m-£4m to set up it raises the question: where will the FSA redistribute funds from its existing budget to pay for the unit?
The FSA says it has already filled 40 posts by reallocating current employees but it remains to be seen whether it is prepared to buy in the investigative and intelligence capabilities that Elliott says will be key to the success of the unit. The concern must be that without these skills the unit will not identify levels of crime that would justify its long-term existence and will be quietly canned at the first opportunity.
Elliott directs a number of recommendations to the food industry in areas such as auditing, testing and information gathering, but it is his commentary on the way in which food is purchased that should be essential reading for any business operating in the sector.
In a hard-hitting section entitled “Procurement Policies” he states that the culture of adversarial procurement has not changed since he published his interim report in December and in some cases has got worse. He refers to the re- emergence of a price war between the big retailers and notes that the food industry needs to realise the extent of its exposure should another horse-meat scandal occur, both in terms of the loss of revenue and the potential to endanger the lives of consumers.
He also suggests that businesses shown to have profited from criminal activity and which have failed to carry out due diligence on their supply chain would be culpable under the Proceeds of Crime Act. No businesses were prosecuted after the horse-meat scandal but with Elliott’s warning inked in black and white the authorities are unlikely to be so charitable in the case of another widespread fraud.
This rebuke may have been addressed primarily at retailers but foodservice operators should not treat it lightly. With cost still a key driver for many operators and their clients, businesses would do well to heed Elliott’s warning about the reputational risk to those exposed as selling fraudulent food. Consumers may have largely forgiven businesses caught up in the horse-meat scandal but they surely will not be so benevolent a second time around.
The hope from the Elliott review is that the horse-meat scandal, on reflection, will be considered as a turning point in the fight against fraud. The scandal brought to the surface a murky underbelly to the industry that has long been known about but largely ignored.
As it transpired the adulteration of beef with horse did not pose a risk to public health, but this was more down to luck than judgment. If Elliott’s recommendations go unheeded and another such scandal erupts the industry will have only itself to blame.