We seem to suffer collective memory failure when it comes to the safety and integrity of our meat supply. With current scandals and new trade deals upon us, it is time to remind ourselves of what is at stake.
Remember BSE and foot and mouth disease? Remember Rotherham? In the mid-1990s, £2.5m-worth of condemned poultry meat was spruced up and sold back to restaurants, supermarkets and butchers. Remember Wishaw in Scotland? Twenty-one people died of e.coli 0157 food poisoning in 1996 after a butcher failed adequately to separate raw meat from cooked. Remember reports in 2006 that one in 30 boxes of imported eggs contained salmonella? Remember Edwina Currie’s comment in 1988 that the UK egg supply was also riddled with the food poisoning bug? It took almost 30 years and significant efforts by authorities and the egg industry to eradicate salmonella and be able to declare, only last year, it is safe for toddlers and pensioners to eat dippy egg from British Lion producers.
Remember numerous stories of campylobacter in chicken? Remember revelations of the use of critically important antibiotics in meat production, and stories in 2017 of supermarket meat containing antibiotic-resistant superbugs? Remember undeclared horsemeat in supplies to 13 European countries in 2013?
Some of these stories are about criminality, some about negligence, some about endemic poor practice, driven in no small part by the ever-downward pressure on prices and the temptation to squeeze more profit out of an already squeezed system. The point is that food from animals is too often a cause of risks to our health and our trust in the food system. As we enter a period of uncertainty associated with Brexit, our food industry can ill afford more scandals and recalls; our citizens can ill afford increased risks to their health.
So I find it astonishing that over the past decade our government has slashed budgets for local authority meat hygiene services, independent public analyst labs and port authorities, doggedly pursuing the flawed notion that ‘light-touch regulation’ is good enough. When we reawaken our collective memory, we can see it patently isn’t. I also find it alarming our Brexit Department has failed to make any assessment of the capacity needed to ensure increased food imports are fit to eat. And we have no cast-iron guarantee UK trade negotiators will be required to uphold principles of low antibiotic use, high animal welfare, independent testing and whole supply chain safety and traceability.
We must require and support producers to undertake work to improve animal welfare and natural resilience to disease; maintain scrupulous hygiene at all stages of the process; and be fully accountable through sampling, audits and inspections.
Government must ensure our meat hygiene, public analyst labs and port authorities have sufficient resources and powers to keep us safe. And our trade secretary must guarantee UK trade negotiators will defend high standards and not make decisions behind closed doors. Anything less is simply not good enough.
Kath Dalmeny is chief executive of Sustain