16 Jul 2013

Horsemeat report reveals FSA and retail failings

A lack of clarity about what the UK’s food regulator should be doing, and a failure by supermarkets to be vigilant about meat products, contributed to the UK horsemeat scandal, say MPs.

A lack of clarity about what the UK's food regulator should be doing, and a failure by supermarkets to be vigilant about adulterated meat, contributed to the UK horsemeat scandal, according to MPs.

The Food Standard Agency’s (FSA) responsibilities needs to be more clearly defined, and large retailers should carry out regular DNA tests on the meat that forms part of processed or frozen meat products, according to Food Contamination, a new report.

“There was confusion about where responsibility lay for responding to the horsemeat discovery,” said Anne McIntosh MP, launching the document.

“We urge the government to reconsider the machinery of government changes it made in 2010 and make the FSA one step removed from the government departments it reports to.”

‘Evidence of fraud’

MPs from the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee believe consumer confidence in the frozen meat sector would be restored if those responsible for the horsemeat scandal are identified and prosecuted.

And the report expresses concern that no prosecutions have yet been brought, despite clear evidence of organised fraud in the meat supply chain.

“We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity,” the report says.

New powers

Among its main recommendations, the report proposes that –

  • The FSA is given powers to compel industry to carry out food testing when needed
  • Large retailers must pay to carry out regular DNA testing of meat ingredients for frozen and processed meat products
  • The FSA should have powers to ensure local authorities carry out food sampling each year
  • Local authorities should adopt targeted sampling
  • The government should ensure there is a sufficient number of properly trained public analysts in the UK
  • The FSA should ensure open channels of communication with devolved administrations and with its EU counterparts

More bureaucracy?

Responding to the publication, the FSA told Channel 4 News: “The FSA will be considering all the points raised in the Efra report, and will feed into the full government response which will be published in due course.”

But the document has raised fears in some quarters that the proposals, if implemented, will create a new and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in the delivery of food to consumers.

“It seems to me a classic example of the state expanding due to one bizarre incident,” Christopher Snowden, of the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs, told Channel 4 News.

“This (the horsemeat scandal) was an incredibly bizarre event. The most that should be done is to test for horsemeat and any other meat that could contaminate the food supply.”

‘Completely unacceptable’

The discovery of horsemeat in burgers on sale at supermarkets in the UK and the Irish Republic, reported by Channel 4 News on 16 January, revealed serious failings in the food supply chain.

Prime Minister David Cameron subsequently asserted that it was “completely unacceptable” that people had been buying incorrectly labelled meat products that contained horsemeat.

“If there has been criminal activity, there should be the full intervention of the law,” he said.