The continuing horsemeat scandal has served to highlight the many challenges affecting the food chain. At a time when we need effective co-ordination across the supply chain, food issues seem more fragmented than ever before.
A new Which? report, Future of Food, published this week, calls for a more joined-up and consumer-focused approach and sets out five areas for action to improve standards across the food supply chain and ensure its long-term sustainability.
Firstly, there needs to be strong government leadership and a clear strategy to tackle the many challenges facing the food chain: volatile prices, obesity, environmental impacts, increasing demand, safety and fraud as well as wider issues of quality and consumer acceptability.
Secondly, this strategy needs to be informed by a better understanding of consumer priorities. Consumer confidence has been hit hard by the horsemeat episode. Which? research found trust in the food industry had dropped by a quarter. We want to see much wider public engagement on food issues.
“Consumer issues have to be at the heart of food policy”
We also need institutional change. Consumer issues have to be at the heart of policy. Defra needs to be more consumer-focused and the FSA should be given back responsibilities that were stripped away. Nutrition, labelling and standards should be handled by an independent agency required to put the consumer first and operate transparently.
The dogmatic approach we have seen to cutting regulatory burdens needs to be replaced with a more balanced method that recognises effective regulation and enforcement is needed.
We also want a greater government focus on clear pricing and long-term affordability. Our research has repeatedly shown that food prices are a major concern for consumers, so a more coherent approach is needed. But this can’t be a ‘price at all costs’, quality is also important.
Finally, people need to be able to make informed choices about what they eat and have confidence in the information they are given. The government needs to do more to enable healthy and sustainable choices. While supermarkets are already putting traffic light labelling on food, we need more manufacturers to do the same, and we want better origin labelling on meat products.
As an independent review considers the implications of the horsemeat scandal, wider lessons need to be learned to ensure the food supply chain meets consumer needs in the years to come.
The government must seize this opportunity to take urgent action to protect consumers and to help them make genuinely informed choices about the food they buy.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?