NO SOONER had the horse meat scandal erupted than the blame game began. ’Twas ever thus. Every scandal needs a villain and there’s no more convenient villain than one that is unidentifiable.
And so retailers, the UK government and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) were united in their defence that the scandal was the result of fraudulent criminal behaviour from someone somewhere within the labyrinthine meat supply chain and so couldn’t possibly have been avoided.
On the former point they’re almost certainly correct, but on the latter I’m not so sure. There are two points to consider here. First, regardless of the case specifics, the horse meat scandal is the product of a global food system that values price over quality. And second, the actions of the UK government in 2010 prepared the ground for this type of activity to go undetected.
Back in 2009, the blame for the horse meat scandal could have been laid squarely at the FSA’s door; after all, this is a labelling scandal and as the agency responsible for food labelling the FSA had its hands firmly on the tiller. But in 2010 the FSA was reorganised and its responsibilities were stripped down. Nutrition policy and nutrition labelling in England were transferred to the Department of Health, while country of origin labelling was brought within DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). This left the FSA’s sole function as food safety, which has only ever been a peripheral issue in the horse meat affair. Nor is the FSA responsible for testing products. That task falls on local authorities but cuts in sampling budgets and officers have made it difficult to maintain targeted surveillance of the food sector.
The moral of this story? That the question of blame is rarely as clear-cut as it first appears.
Nick Hughes is a journalist and is currently studying food policy at City University