WHEN THE government doesn’t know what to do, it tends to call for a review. And that’s exactly what it did after the horse meat scandal, with Professor Chris Elliott heading an “independent review of Britain’s food system”. He’s expected to provide some interim findings next month, but the final report is unlikely to be any time before summer 2014.
But in the interim there have already been the Troop report (21 pages), the National Audit Office review (40 pages ) and the environment, food and rural affairs committee’s two assessments (135 pages combined).
Which raises the question: how much more reviewing do we need to do to find out whodunnit and how to stop it happening again after a controversy which rocked the foundations of the UK’s multibillion-pound food industry?
In a debate of its two reports last month, the environment committee’s chair, Anne McIntosh, said the time for reviews was up – and now was the time for action. “Complacency is not the best word to use, but we don’t see any sense of urgency on the government benches,” she said. Six months after the discovery of horse meat in products labelled as beef “the original source of the adulteration has not been identified”.
During the 90-minute session, the failure to find the source of the adulteration and the handling of the affair by the government and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was the focus of the committee’s ire. The supermarkets also got a mention, with McIntosh asking the government to consider a new testing regime paid for by the food companies.
This was one of the recommendations in the committee’s July report, which said: “We welcome the commitment of some supermarkets to carry out DNA tests on meat products. We recommend that this be made compulsory for large food retailers, with appropriate penalties imposed for those who fail to do so.” It said retailers – not customers – should pay for this new regime.
However, the government isn’t keen on what it calls “prescriptive requirements that may be burdensome”. This is the line that Dan Rogerson toed (Rogerson having switched sides recently when he was promoted to DEFRA minister after co-authoring the committee’s report).
Just who should be testing what, and when, was the focus of the National Audit Office’s report last month, which concluded that “while arrangements for identifying and testing for risks to food safety are relatively mature and effective, similar arrangements for the authenticity of food are not”. The audit office blamed the split in responsibilities for food policy between the FSA and two Whitehall departments in 2010 (DEFRA and the Department of Health). The fact that testing of food samples by local authorities had called 26% since 2009-2010 didn't help either.
Much has been made of how to restore consumer confidence in the UK’s food supply chain. There has been an increase in those buying British products and shopping locally at butchers and farm shops, a trend which McIntosh said was “very pleasing”, before adding that confidence had to be restored in the supermarkets given their importance to the UK’s economy.
Research published by IGD in October showed that 56% of shoppers want to know more about where their food comes from. The research group’s CEO, Joanne Denney-Finch, said there needs to be a “revolution in transparency” given that “eight in 10 shoppers believe that food and grocery companies should know where every single ingredient comes from”.
The exposure of the length and complexity of the UK’s food supply chain doesn’t make this easy. Take the recent analysis of the components of a pizza, carried out for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which discovered that it was made from 35 different ingredients that passed through 60 countries, on five different continents. More recently there was also the pork chop story, with the BBC revealing that isotope tests carried out on a sample of the products from Tesco suggested there was a “less than 1% chance” the pork came from Britain, despite carrying the Red Tractor label. This was, however, an “isolated case”, said Red Tractor’s CEO, David Clarke. If only that had been the case for those burgers.