What’s the long-term legacy of a major food scandal like Horsegate? That’s been a key question ever since horsemeat discoveries started drying up earlier this year, and retailers, suppliers and government officials moved from frantic crisis management to reflection and introspection.
It’s also at the heart of the review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks spearheaded by Professor Chris Elliott, which was commissioned by Defra and the Department of Health in the wake of Horsegate.
Earlier this week, I met Elliott and his team as part of a round table of food journalists to provide input to the review. His first findings and recommendations are not due until December, with the final report set for spring 2014, and there are restrictions on what can be disclosed from our discussion until then. I can, however, share some broad observations.
Elliott has clearly been treated to a whistlestop tour of UK food industry best practice, and he had some very encouraging comments to make about the standards he’s encountered so far. For instance, he seemed keen to recommend to the DH -and anyone involved in improving hygiene in hospitals - that they take a leaf out of the food industry’s book and learn from how the best food companies manage hygiene.
That’s not to say he’s only getting exposed to the industry’s best side - in addition to pre-arranged tours and carefully managed discussions, Elliott revealed he had met people “in car parks at 6am” and received anonymous letters and phone calls offering insights.
However, what stood out most was a sense from Elliott that - as far as securing a positive legacy from Horsegate is concerned - time really is of the essence. As the scandal slowly approaches its first anniversary, there is a danger horsemeat is dropping off corporate agendas, not because the industry isn’t taking it seriously enough (Elliott described its willingness to engage with the review process as impressive), but because there are other issues competing for companies’ attention. Elliott picked out “factories collapsing in Bangladesh” as one example and suggested there are signs industry belief in its ability to achieve radical change on its own is reducing, with supply chain restructuring slowly moving down board agendas.
Declining attention isn’t just an industry issue either. One of the questions that’s clearly looming large for Elliott is the extent to which consumers still care about Horsegate, and how it has altered their perceptions of food scandals more generally.
Tied in with that were questions directed at us, the media, and our role in encouraging interest in food chain issues.
Media attention can be an important tool in ensuring consumers are engaged on supply chain issues, but Elliott and his team felt it could also be capricious and not relied on as a consistent safeguard. For example, Elliott made clear he was surprised by how little media attention the recent origin labelling hullaballoo involving a Tesco pork chop received.
Was this a sign of interest fatigue or was the horsemeat scandal simply so big that less dramatic - but nevertheless serious - food chain issues seemed insignificant in comparison, he wondered?
How these questions will ultimately translate into recommendations for government, of course, remain to be seen, but Elliott makes a convincing case that action needs to be taken sooner rather than later. Here’s hoping the government will heed his advice.