Horsemeat fraud could just be the first out of the gate

13 March 2013

Liz Moran, President of the Association of Public Analysts (APA), says that a shift towards light-touch regulation of the food industry in the UK could result in other fraudulent food practices going undiscovered. 

Speaking ahead of a food security event tomorrow at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), triggered by the horse meat scandal, Ms Moran said that lack of funding for official control laboratories has broken the system for enforcing food safety and standards in the UK.

She said: "The gap between the checks that the public think take place on their food, and the reality, is huge.

"There has been a policy shift towards light-touch regulation of the food industry in the UK. The reason given for this has been to reduce the burdens on business to help kick-start the economy, but the reality is it has partly been a cost-saving exercise. The result is that self-policing in the food industry has allowed the industry and the enforcers to become complacent, and assumptions to be made that everyone was playing by the rules.

"On top of this, the public has come to expect cheap food, putting food manufacturers under huge pressure to cut production costs. It was inevitable that this would lead to cutting corners, and in the case of the horsemeat scandal it has led to criminal activity."

She continued: "The horsemeat situation has not led to any deaths and has been a great source of jokes. 

"But what other fraudulent practices are going undiscovered that may result in harm to consumers? Is horsemeat in burgers a one-off situation, or the tip of the iceberg? What else are criminals putting in our food in order to make a profit?

"The Association of Public Analysts has been warning the government for years that laboratory provision for enforcing food safety in the UK was failing. Lack of funding has led to lab closures, redundancies and a lack of investment in up-to-date analytical technologies in the labs remaining. Where laboratories once worked together and shared information to develop new methodologies, they have now been forced to compete with each other for a share of the diminishing market.

"Although the Food Standards Agency has acknowledged this problem, it has appeared either powerless or unwilling to act to secure an enforcement system which is fit for purpose.

"This has led to the situation we are in currently, where a very small number of official control laboratories are now being called upon to carry out DNA testing on meat products as a result of the horsemeat found in burgers in January. Although they are managing to respond to the sudden demand for urgent testing and results, it is a struggle when they are so under-resourced."

Dr Mark Woolfe, former Head of Authenticity at the Food Standards Agency, who is also taking part in the RSC's event tomorrow, agrees that the current enforcement system isn't working.

He said: "There has been too much reliance on suppliers checking their own meat sources. The presence of horsemeat in beef products should have been picked up by the supermarkets or by publicly-funded inspection systems.

"It has been a false economy to make the cuts that have led to the downsizing of the UK's official enforcement system. The cost in product recall and bad publicity for the food industry has been enormous at a time when the government has been trying to grow that very industry to boost the economy."

The President of the APA called for the government to reduce the current policy of risk-based sampling and recognise that the UK must play its part in detecting food fraud early on.

"The reputations of the UK and its food industry are at stake and consumer confidence is low," Ms Moran said. 

"Food standards and safety enforcement must be properly resourced and the present funding system requires review.  Currently, public enforcement is financed via the revenue support grant to local authorities but because local authority grants are not ring-fenced, local priorities decide how much is allocated to food safety. This system worked well when food was produced and sold locally but now that food is supplied nationally and globally, it may be that this system is no longer fit for purpose."

Dr Woolfe also supports a review of the current system.

He said: "We have a food fraud database here in the UK, but that is not enough. We are now working within a global food industry, but we don't have the systems in place to deal with food fraud at this level.

"When there are issues with food safety within a country in the EU, rapid alerts are issued to all the other member countries, but there is no similar efficient mechanism for food fraud.

"A European network for food fraud might have given notice of the horsemeat problem much earlier on. Going forward, an initiative like this would be something positive to come out of this potentially damaging incident."

Notes for editors:

1) A debate on the subject of food safety and standards in the UK entitled Stop Horsing Around with our Food will be held on Thursday 14 March 2013 at 6pm for 6.30pm at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA. The debate will be webcast live - please see link below.

2) Public Analysts are the highly skilled scientists who form the front line of the UK's public protection and enforcement service in terms of chemical analysis and related testing. The Royal Society of Chemistry has been training and assessing Public Analysts since the 1860s, through the administration of the MChemA qualification that is the requirement for a scientist to become eligible for appointment as a Public Analyst.

3)The number of Public Analyst laboratories has been reduced from more than 40 to just 18 in the last 30 years. The number of appointed Public Analysts in the UK has fallen from more than 100 in 1956 to just over 30 currently appointed - a fall of more than 60 per cent.

Related Links

Link icon Stop Horsing Around with Our Food
View the live webcast of the debate here

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Contact and Further Information

Victoria Steven
Media Relations Executive
Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BA
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7440 3322