It’s nearly four years since the horsemeat scandal broke, yet for everyone in the food supply chain, Horsegate is still etched in the memory, with Tesco and its horsemeat burgers in particular an unfortunate and abiding image.
So imagine the irony of the FSA coming to Tesco to pilot a new food safety system. In a way, the fact that the FSA thinks it can even broach this idea shows just how far supermarkets have raised their game since Horsegate. Be it moves on testing for horsemeat or stepping up the fight against campylobacter, retailers are in a much better place.
But it also demonstrates just how desperately short of resources the FSA and the local authorities it relies on have become. It is plainly unfit to handle anything like its existing workload, which it estimates at around 350,000 inspections every year.
In an exclusive interview this week, its new chair Heather Hancock admits people would be shocked if they realised how scant the resources of local inspectors have become. She reveals that nationwide schemes such as the Scores on the Doors hygiene inspections are simply grinding to a halt because there are not enough feet on the ground.
And, as counterintuitive as it sounds, she believes it makes better sense to tap into the technology and supply chain knowledge of what she terms the “super food companies” (like Tesco) to essentially self regulate, while concentrating on the rogue traders threatening the reputation of the industry.
But it’s going to be very difficult for the FSA to come up with a new system without giving the impression that the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse, and there will be real concern the FSA no longer has the teeth to be a strong independent force of its own. Even this week there have been calls at the Labour Party conference for the FSA to be, ahem, beefed up.
The latest development suggests a very different type of body based on light touch, low red tape regulation, while working closely with the private sector. Will politicians - and the public - stomach it?