It’s difficult to comment publicly on what has been going on at Russell Hume as the investigations are still live, so a look at the broader issues seems appropriate.
A series of unannounced inspections by the FSA revealed a number of issues in terms of labelling. Nothing too noteworthy here, except that it seems these are as a result of whistleblowing and not routine audits.
So why did all the third party audits conducted on the premises not flag up any issues? My view is that many audits conducted are not fit for purpose if identifying problems in terms of integrity of production. This is something I have repeated so many times I’m quite tired of listening to myself.
The second question is why the severity of the response by the FSA in terms of closing down much of the production of one business. My view is that the FSA is not prone to overreact. Time will tell what it uncovered to warrant its actions. I read the statements of the FSA carefully and took to discussing this with its CEO on social media. I was pleased Jason Feeney felt able to do this.
I also became aware that the National Food Crime Unit was taking an active role in the investigation. Five years ago this unit didn’t exist and only in recent times has the government indicated that it can move to ‘phase two’. So what was ‘phase one’? This is the development of intelligence-gathering capabilities and a business plan to indicate the need to move to an investigative role.
We now have a regulator able to tackle some murky issues and take decisive action. But this is the same regulator that believes the private sector can to quite a high degree police itself under the ‘Regulating Our Future’ strategy. I’m not convinced this is correct until the time comes that private sector audits are much more robust, undertaken by appropriately skilled staff and that there are mechanisms for the sharing of information between the private sector and the regulator. So, five years after Horsegate, we’ve a more reactive and fit for purpose FSA - but there’s still a lot to be done to protect the UK consumer and the reputation of the food industry.
Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast