It seems food scares are rarely out of the news these days. In the past few weeks we’ve heard news of a national salmonella outbreak, an investigation exposing unacceptably high levels of campylobacter in chicken and, most recently, news of a strike by meat inspectors. It all leads you to question whether lessons are being learned from previous scares.
Last year, the horsemeat scandal highlighted the fragility of both the food supply chain and consumer confidence in the industry. Food is one of the few sectors that is well trusted, but six in 10 people said they had changed their shopping and eating habits as a result of the scandal; trust in the industry dipped.
Unfortunately, horsemeat was not the only high-profile incident of food fraud in the supply chain. Our undercover investigation into lamb takeaways found 40% were adulterated with other meats. Although it wasn’t a safety issue, it should have been a wake-up call that put food quality controls higher up the government’s agenda.
It’s not just consumers who are affected by food fraud, as good businesses will also suffer a competitive disadvantage if the rogues cutting corners aren’t caught and punished.
Following the horsemeat scandal, inquiries were launched by the environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and National Audit Office raising concerns about policy responsibilities and the inadequacy of meat controls, but the momentum has been lost. The Elliott report, commissioned by the government to look into the wider integrity and assurance of food supply chains, is yet to be published.
We can’t afford to be complacent. Elliott’s interim report highlighted the need for a zero-tolerance approach to food crime. He made much of the importance of intelligence gathering, tougher industry checks and government controls, as well as the need to give policy responsibility for food standards back to the FSA. Elliott’s final recommendations must be published and acted upon.
The FSA was created because of the need for food issues to be dealt with independently and transparently. It has a clear and unambiguous remit to put consumer interests first. Now, more than ever, we need a strong and effective FSA. This is not only in the interest of consumers but also the industry.
The government needs to take a more proactive, joined-up approach to food policy, tackling the risks facing the supply chain in the short and long term. Crucially, it needs to support an independent FSA that can stand up for consumers and intervene to ensure we can have greater confidence in the safety and quality of what we eat.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?