The government should consider reversing the machinery of government changes that reduced the Food Standards Agency’s remit in 2010 so as to better equip the regulator to deal with food crises such as the horsemeat scandal in the future, a committee of MPs has said.
In a new report on the scandal, published today, the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee describes the FSA’s initial response to the scandal as “hesitant” and says there was a lack of clarity about its responsibilities. In rectifying this, “the government should consider whether this might be achieved by reversing the machinery of government changes made in 2010 and allowing the FSA to be one step removed from the two government departments it reports to,” the committee said.
The Food Standards Agency is to set up a new intelligence hub to ensure it is better equipped in future to spot issues such as ‘horsegate’ in their embryonic stages.
Efra had already flagged up this point in an earlier report on the scandal, but its criticism was, at the time, rejected by the government. Since then, Professor Pat Troop’s review of the FSA’s handling of the scandal – published last week – has also highlighted the need for greater clarity in the FSA’s role.
In today’s report, Efra says policy matters are rightly the responsibility of ministers, but argues the machinery of government changes of 2010 created a lack of clarity about the FSA’s role during the scandal.
It adds although it is important the FSA maintains good working relationships with Defra and the Department of Health, it might be better for the FSA to be “one step removed from the government departments it reports to so as to enable a swifter response when a major incident occurs”.
“It could be argued that a more arm’s-length relationship might better enable the FSA to question policy decisions.”
As reported by The Grocer, the government’s own review into the horsemeat scandal – conducted by Professor Chris Elliott – will also weigh up if changes to the division of responsibilities between the FSA, Defra and the Department of Health are needed.
Efra is calling on the FSA to reflect on whether it is acting as a robust regulator of industry. It also criticised the agency for not having a “sufficiently innovative or forward-looking” testing regime to pick up on horsemeat contamination at an earlier stage. After learning in November from its Irish counterpart – the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) – that initial tests on beef products had found horse DNA, the FSA did not conduct its own tests but waited for six weeks for the FSAI to confirm its results, according to Efra.
Other recommendations made by Efra include:
- The FSA should be given powers to compel retailers to carry out food tests (reiterating a point made earlier this year);
- Retailers should carry out regular DNA checks on products, the results of which should be reported to the FSA and on the retailers’ websites;
- The government should hold talks with farmers, food business operators and retailers to develop a plan for restoring confidence in frozen and processed meats;
- The government should keep the positive-release testing system for the banned veterinary drug phenylbutazone in horse carcases, in light of the unusually high number of bute cases in the UK compared with other EU countries;
- The FSA should improve communications and intelligence-sharing with devolved authorities and other member states;
- The government should keep under review whether the number of public analysts is sufficient for the UK’s needs, and be mindful of the impact budget cuts can have on the ability of local authorities to conduct food sampling.