The Food Standards Agency must improve its major incident plan before another food crisis strikes, an independent review of its response to the horsemeat scandal has recommended.
In a broadly positive assessment of the FSA’s handling of the scandal, which broke on 14 January, Professor Pat Troop said today the agency would need to improve some of its processes before the next major food incident occurs.
“The next incident might have major food safety implications and it’s important to everybody that the right set-up is in place,” she told an FSA board meeting this afternoon.
“I don’t think they appreciated the impact it would have,” she said, adding that it was the “biggest incident agency has had to face”. It became apparent that the FSA’s protocol was not sufficient for such a major incident, Troop added, but the agency put in place new procedures from early February which were “very strong” and allowed it to work more effectively.
“The next incident might have major food safety implications and it’s important to everybody that the right set-up is in place”
Prof Pat Troop
Prof Troop highlighted three other areas in need of attention. These were: the FSA’s intelligence gathering; clarity around which agency does what; and whether the FSA has sufficient powers to handle an incident of this scale.
Prof Troop urged the FSA to develop “a range of inputs of intelligence from multiple sources”, including ‘web crawlers’ that can search the web for reports of food issues before a formal report is made.
In reviewing the opening stages of the horsemeat scandal, Prof Troop said there was “some hesitancy within the agency”, given that the contamination of beef products with horsemeat was not technically a food safety issue. However, she acknowledged the FSA’s Strategic Incident Management Team immediately took the lead on the issue on 15 January because it recognised that no other agency would take it on.
With regards to the FSA’s powers, Prof Troop stopped short of calling for new legislation to bolster the agency, and said binding codes of conduct and framework agreements with local authorities, for example, could make the agency more effective in future.
“The agency relied on co-operation and goodwill to manage this incident. That goes a long way, we shouldn’t discount that. But it relies on a lot of players and you need to be confident they will all play their part.”
The government has already said it is considering giving the FSA new powers to require retailers and suppliers to carry out quality tests on their products.
Prof Troop described her review as “short and sharp” and based her findings on numerous interviews with key players in the horsemeat scandal as well as documents provided by the FSA.
Reporting on the food industry’s opinion of the FSA’s performance, she described a mixed picture.
“They were confused about who should lead. They recognised that sampling had to be delivered because this is what would give consumers confidence.” However, industry figures described early meetings with the FSA as “confrontational”, although subsequent meetings were found to be more helpful, Troop said.
When asked if the FSA had shown itself to be on the side of the consumer, Prof Troop said she thought it had. “It’s a difficult balance. It had to be shown that decisive action was being taken, it had to be shown that the public was being protected. But moving forward, how you work with people will affect how willing they are to give you intelligence,” she said.
“[Industry] thought on the whole you did pretty well.”
FSA chair Jeff Rooker weclomed the report and said the agency would review its findings in details. “This is the biggest food incident ever handled by the Food Standards Agency and it is important that we learn lessons from our handling – both what worked well and areas that need to be improved.”
Prof Troop is vice chair of the Cambridge Hospitals Trust and was asked to review the FSA’s handling of horsegate at the end of April.
Earlier today, the government named Prof Chris Elliott of Queen’s University, Belfast as chair of its own review into the horsemeat scandal.