Does anyone remember the Efra Committee episode where Neil Parish et al tried to get Groceries Code Adjudicator Christine Tacon to answer questions on farmgate prices, despite the fact her role doesn’t have anything to do with meat and dairy farmers, or pricing?
Well, if you thought that was uncomfortable viewing, try and get hold of the tapes of the Committee’s latest inquiry into 2 Sisters and standards in poultry processing. If Parish and co’s cringeworthy questioning of Tacon was reminiscent of a bad reality TV show, their interrogation of FSA CEO Jason Feeney and others responsible for UK food safety and assurance was as relentless as The Revenant.
Their final report on the inquiry was equally damning, describing the current UK food assurance system as patchy, full of loopholes and easy to game.
In fairness to the MPs, I think most of the British public would share their outrage that, nearly five years on from Horsegate, we are dealing with yet another meat industry scandal. And just like with horsemeat, the evidence suggests this wasn’t a misdemeanour by a dodgy backstreet butcher - it was a major failure in process at one of the UK’s biggest meat suppliers, which has every accreditation under the sun.
And while horsemeat was at least brought to public attention by regulators, this latest scandal was only uncovered thanks to a tenacious undercover journalist. Had the Guardian and ITV not chosen to investigate the plant, it might still be operating in the same way.
That’s a sobering thought. And – in the words of Efra’s report – it should be a wake-up call, not only for accreditation firms but for the entire food industry.
Everyone – from food safety experts to industry leaders and trade unionists – seems to agree the current system of assurance is broken. We are in the ridiculous situation where the UK food industry is more audited than ever – which is ultimately driving up prices for the consumer – but no one is any safer than before.
In the words of Dawn Welham, technical director at Authenticate IS and president elect of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, any competent business can pass an audit. But to keep our food safe, we need to separate out the businesses that continue to do the right thing when no one is looking, from those who don’t.
It’s time for a new approach, and some much more probing questions.