Food Contamination - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents


4  Responses

The role of industry

42. As noted in our previous Report it is the responsibility of food retailers to ensure the integrity of their supply chains. The FSA said:   

    Food businesses are responsible for ensuring that the food they supply meets food safety and labelling requirements. Businesses, including producers, processors and retailers are responsible for ensuring there is effective traceability of food through the food chain and are expected to carry out some testing of products. Specifically retailers are responsible for the quality of products they sell and should take steps to seek assurance of their suppliers' processes.[72]

43. Mr Fairbairn of Freeza Meats, a UK-based processed meat producer, told us he verified the assurances of his suppliers through a questionnaire, an audit, and whether they had EU approval to trade. Of these, he said the questionnaire and the EU approval were the most important.[73] Mr Finnerty of ABP Foods told us that although Tesco had specified seven suppliers of beef for its products, agents at the Silvercrest factory had gone outside this specification, in breach of contract. He said ABP had thought that they were "buying from suppliers who were approved by the British Retail Consortium"[74]

44. Peter Kendall of the NFU said that retailers had focused too much on price, at the expense of quality: "the notion that you can get eight burgers for £1 and not be cutting corners has been proved to be one of the real stumbling blocks of this entire process. You just cannot do it". [75] Freeza Meats confirmed this:

    one would have to pursue the cheapest possible product one can get, in view of the price movement in the raw material that we use [...]The price of that, I can say, has doubled in the past two and a half years, driven to a degree by the desinewed issue, but probably more so by the weak economy over here. [76]

45. As a result of the crisis FSA thought that retailers would now exercise much greater diligence in checking their suppliers.[77] Tesco had previously told us they would use only British and Irish beef in all their products, including their frozen and value burgers, and that they would carry out regular DNA testing for horse and other contaminants at no extra cost to the consumer.[78]

46. As already noted, retailers have a clear responsibility to ensure the products they sell are accurately labelled. While some retailers may have been misled, those serving large sectors of the market need to 'up their game' and verify with greater accuracy the assurances of their suppliers. There must be regular, detailed tests on all meat or meat-based ingredients which form part of a processed meat product. We welcome the commitment of some supermarkets to carry out DNA tests on meat products. We recommend that this be made compulsory for large food retailers, with appropriate penalties imposed for those who fail to do so. A summary of these test results should be published on the retailer's website. The cost of this testing must be borne by the relevant companies as part of their due diligence and should not be passed on to the consumer.

EU PROPOSALS FOR SUPPLY CHAINS

47. The main aim of the EU's five-point action plan is to "strengthen the enforcement of food chain rules" (from horse passport legislation to hygiene and labelling requirements) so as to restore consumer confidence in Europe's supply chain. The plan includes:

·  measures to increase the rapid exchange of information between Member States in cases of food violations which may constitute a fraud—current processes for sharing information apply mainly to serious risks;

·  a co-ordinated testing programme and follow-up action;

·  improving co-ordination and control of the movement of horses across the EU;

·  a proposal to ensure that financial penalties for food fraud or other violations of food law are at a level which is dissuasive and higher than the economic gain expected from the fraud; and

·  extending mandatory origin labelling on all types of meat used as an ingredient in foods.[79]

Mr Heath welcomed the proposals and was keen to make progress on them. However the next discussion will not be until the July Agricultural Council.[80]

48. The EU proposals are welcome, although still at an early stage and not likely to be discussed until the July Agriculture Council meeting. The proposals should ensure improved sharing of information between Member States which will make the identification of food fraud in complex supply chains easier. We particularly welcome the proposal that penalties for those seeking to defraud consumers should be higher than the economic gain expected from the fraud. However, legislation will not deter fraudsters unless all Member States are prepared to use proportionate enforcement powers to back it up.

The role of the FSA

49. In our previous Report we examined the role of the FSA. We made two main observations. The first relates to the changed remit of the FSA after the 2010 machinery of government changes, the second to the powers of the FSA in relation to retailers. We discuss each of these further in this Report.

REMIT OF THE FSA

50. The Food Standards Agency is a non-ministerial Government department set up in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food across the UK.[81] In 2010, as a result of machinery of government changes, the remit of the FSA was changed. The FSA described its role as follows:

    Responsibility for food authenticity is shared between the FSA and Defra, working in close collaboration. The respective roles of the two departments [Defra and the Department of Health] in England were set out in 2010 following Machinery of Government changes. Defra has responsibility for food labelling and food composition policy where this is not related to food safety. This includes a food authenticity programme. The FSA is responsible for investigating incidents, including misleading labelling and food fraud and for liaison between central and local government.[82]

In February we said that the FSA's diminished role had led to a lack of clarity about where responsibility lay, and this had weakened the UK's ability to identify and respond to food standards concerns.[83]

51. The Government disputed this conclusion and replied that its response had been "swift and effective, with clear joined-up working between Government departments, local authorities and the European Commission." It also said the "FSA took the lead, responding quickly and decisively when alerted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to its findings."[84] However, the report on the FSA's response to the crisis has since concluded that there was initial hesitation on the part of the FSA and some confusion among the public and retailers about who was in charge of the response because of the 2010 changes. Indeed, the arrangements for managing the incident changed as it became clear that this was not a food safety but a food labelling problem.[85] While we reiterate our earlier comments that policy is rightly the responsibility of Ministers, the initial hesitation and confusion in this incident leads us to question whether the FSA should be one step removed from the Government departments it reports to so as to enable a swifter response when a major incident occurs.

52. The Scottish Government is in the course of consultation with a view to bringing forward legislation to create a stand-alone body in Scotland for food safety and standards, feed safety and standards, nutrition, food labelling, meat inspection policy and operational delivery. The Scottish Government view is that the new food body would be able to focus on questions of diet and obesity which are "unique and complex" in Scotland and, secondly, that "advice on food safety, nutrition and labelling should be independent and transparent and should be provided by an organisation which should remain at arm's length from central government."[86]

53. The FSA should consider whether it is performing as a robust regulator of industry. Evidence suggests that the FSA's testing regime was not sufficiently innovative or forward-looking to pick up the horse contamination—it was the Irish authorities who tested for horse DNA and informed the UK subsequently. The Association of Public Analysts told us that the food testing system in place in England could not have picked up the contamination.[87] (We discuss this system later on.)

54. In addition, the FSA did not respond pre-emptively with its own tests but waited for the FSAI to confirm conclusively the presence of horsemeat and DNA in beef products six weeks after the initial communication. It was then another three weeks before the European authorities were officially informed of the situation.[88]

55. A 2012 capability review of the FSA found many positive things to say about the organisation, its leadership, strategy and delivery of objectives.[89] It did not challenge the remit of the FSA, but it did highlight the need for better communication with external stakeholders about the role of the FSA in the broader food and public health agendas in the aftermath of the machinery of government changes and the proposal to create a separate Scottish food body. In particular, the capability review questioned the effectiveness of the FSA's working across Whitehall departments and with other Government bodies and the devolved Administrations. The more recent final report on the FSA's response to the horsemeat issue also comments on the need for better communication about its role.[90]

56. The FSA is a regulator of the food industry and has good links with the two Government departments it answers to. On both occasions when we have called the Minister for Agriculture to give evidence, he has been accompanied by FSA staff. This close relationship provides FSA with direct access to Ministers. On the other hand, it could be argued that a more arm's-length relationship might better enable the FSA to question policy decisions.

57. The FSA's primary stakeholder is, rightly, consumers. There should never be any suspicion that it is too close to industry: instead, it should be seeking to expose the failings of industry where these occur. Its physical presence in meat plants in the UK should ensure visible and evidence-based oversight of the slaughter and hygiene there. However since many meat products are imported, it must rely on routine food sampling by local authorities to monitor the integrity of the supply chain. This would be strengthened if it were to put more resources into monitoring and improving its links with these local authorities. The capability review also commented that the FSA needed to understand better the impact of reduced budgets on local authorities and improve its engagement with them.

58. We reiterate our previous conclusion that, while Ministers are properly responsible for policy, there was a lack of clarity as a result of the machinery of government changes about where responsibility lay for the response to the horsemeat discovery. This initial confusion in the early days of the discovery was unhelpful and there should be better communication about the FSA's role. Greater clarity about the role of the FSA in major incidents is also needed. The Government should consider whether this might be achieved by reverting to the pre-2010 position enabling the FSA to be one step removed from the Government departments it reports to. This would enable a swifter response by the FSA when a major incident occurs.

59. Within its current mandate, the FSA must become a more efficient and effective regulator of industry. The FSA must be independent of industry: it must not be, or be seen to be, beholden to industry. The FSA must serve primarily the interest of consumers in having safe and accurately labelled food products. This also means the FSA must be more innovative and vigilant about its testing regime, and it must build better working relationships, where information is shared earlier, with relevant partners in the UK and Europe.

POWERS IN RELATION TO INDUSTRY

60. In our previous Report we suggested that the FSA be given the powers to compel industry to undertake testing when needed and for industry to be obliged to report the results of its own tests to the FSA. The Government response said it would give this consideration, and this point has now been made in the interim report on the FSA's response to the crisis.[91] However the author of this report, Professor Pat Troop, is minded to set up collaborative and voluntary agreements for sharing test results rather than introducing new legislation.

61. The NFU representative, Peter Kendall, told us it would support increased powers for the FSA depending on how the burden of reporting fell:

    if there is a sensible, proportionate manner of doing that, then there is a lot to be said for that. We are running commercial businesses, and what I don't want to do is to saddle the whole industry with more bureaucracy and red tape. [...] we need to have the right threat of spot checks, proportional checks on people, without creating an enormous bureaucracy through a very competitive industry.[92]

62. If the FSA is to become a more effective regulator of the food industry, it must be given greater powers in relation to this large and growing sector. It should be given the powers to compel retailers to carry out spot checks and tests where necessary—on both the label and the physical content of the meat—and all test results, whether mandated by the FSA or industry itself, should be reported back to the FSA. In this way the FSA can have a better picture and greater oversight of the industry it is watching over. We do not believe this objective can be met by voluntary agreement alone.



72   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946-II Back

73   Q 352 Back

74   Q 79 Back

75   Q 176 Back

76   Q 351 Back

77   Q 503 Back

78   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946-II  Back

79   Ev 109-10  Back

80   Q 656 Back

81   Food Standards Agency, Capability Review, October 2012 Back

82   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946-II  Back

83   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946 Back

84   Contamination of Beef Products: Government response, pp 4-5 Back

85   Pat Troop, Findings: FSA Response, 5 June 2013 and reiterated in the final Report: Review of FSA Response to incident of Contamination of beef Products with horse and pork meat and DNA, 28 June2013.  Back

86   The Scottish Government, A Healthier Scotland: Consultation on creating a new food body, 28 February 2013 Back

87   Q 285. The review of the FSA also notes that "the possibility of this adulteration had not been considered, not just by the FSA." Professor Pat Troop, Review of FSA response to the incident of contamination of beef products with horse and pork meat and DNA, 28 June 2013. Back

88   Q 524, on 8 February 2013 Back

89   FSA, Capability Review, October 2012  Back

90   Professor Pat Troop, Review of FSA response to the incident of contamination of beef products with horse and pork meat and DNA, 28 June 2013 Back

91   Pat Troop, Findings: FSA Response, 5 June 2013 Back

92   Q 169-72 Back


 
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Prepared 16 July 2013