Latest news 04 Sep 2014

Food crime unit set up by Government in response to horsemeat report

Horsemeat

In response to the findings of the Elliott report on food integrity and assurance of food supply networks, Defra will be taking action to restore consumer confidence.

The review makes a number of suggestions and as result of these, the government will establish a new Food Crime Unit, which the Environment Secretary said would strengthen consumers’ sense of security. Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss made the announcement based on the recommendations of Professor Chris Elliott’s report on Thursday

Elliott, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast undertook the task of identifying the weaknesses of food supply networks in Britain and suggesting improvements that could be made to address them, firstly in an interim report released last year, then in the full report published on Thursday. The report was commissioned by Defra in the wake of the horsemeat scandal of 2013.

Officials said that, in light of the findings, the department would continue to support “industry taking effective responsibility for the traceability of their products,” as well as encouraging local authorities to focus on risk-based enforcement activity, and ensuring that consumers have more of an understanding of where their food comes from in the future.

‘Bad apple theory’ labelling of the scandal oversimplifies more serious issues

 The Elliott Review readily acknowledged the weakness of the procurement policies that exist for some of the larger retailers and the effect this can have on the sustainability of UK farming and the knock-on effect this has on the integrity of the food industry. Food policy experts commenting at the time of the scandal warned that the ‘food fraud’ narrative of the crisis was an oversimplification, and that crisis was follow given the known problems with supply chains.

Karel Williams of Manchester Business School said, “The official line is that horsemeat is not a food safety issue, we are the victims of mafia fraud and the supermarkets should test more. This is both naive and a distraction. The problem is long and constantly shifting adversarial supply chains, where processors are buying in on price and the delivery by 40 tonne chiller truck comes from somewhere different each week.”

 In his interim report, released in December, Prof Elliott recommended that the government must act on criminal elements in the supply chain, attracted to the food industry by “the potential for huge profits and low risks.”

On Thursday, when the government published its full response to Professor Elliott’s report, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss explained, “When a shopper picks something up from a supermarket shelf it should be exactly what it says on the label, and we’ll crack down on food fraudsters trying to con British consumers.

 “The action we’re taking gives more power to consumers – meaning they’ve got better labelling on food, better education about where their food comes from, and better, locally-sourced food in schools and hospitals.”

 However, speaking in February, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University said the reflex action of blaming criminal gangs for the contamination was too “convenient”. Professor Land warned that, contrary to the “bad apple theory,” evidence suggests that the scandal was the result of a “systemic failure, where some of the biggest, most powerful, highly capitalised and ruthless controlling companies in the food system have been found to be selling horsemeat” in violation of contracts.

 He added, “This isn’t about safety, it’s about trust… money, power and control; the Food Standards Agency inspectors have been slashed and cut. We can’t have industry policing itself, that’s what’s gone wrong; the big food companies didn’t actually have the power they said they had.”

 Upon publishing the final report, Professor Elliott urged against “cherry picking” from the  findings, claiming that “no part [of the systems approach-based report] can be considered in isolation.” The professor added, “Implementing some of my recommendations will not be easy and will require a culture change. The food industry must above all else demonstrate that having a safe, high integrity food system for the UK is their main responsibility and priority.”

Defra pledges improved labelling from April

 Environment secretary Truss said Defra will be introducing country of origin labelling from April 2015, which officials claim will “[Make] it easier for food procurers to make decisions about the locality, authenticity and traceability of their food.” Defra will also be focusing on new export markets (including China and the United States) to capitalise on the reputation of British food and drink, the environment secretary said.

Commenting on the report’s publication, NFU president Meurig Raymond said, “The promises made by retailers in the wake of the horsemeat scandal need to be remembered, and promises to shorten supply chains and bring food closer to home should be honoured.”