By Eve Mitchell
If we’ve learned anything in the past few weeks, it must be that the UK Food Standards Agency’s “If you tell us it’s there, we’ll look for it” approach is not a recipe for food safety.
As far as we can tell now the situation is that Irish authorities, almost by accident when trialling a new protocol, found a good deal of horsemeat in foods processed in Irish facilities, including for export. This led to widespread product recalls, more testing in Ireland and the UK and rapid assurances all round that everything was under control.
Further testing revealed even more adulterated meat, including products labelled beef that tested at 100% horsemeat. The wider the net is cast, the bigger the problem is revealed to be, and it is all too clear we are nowhere near understanding what we have been feeding our kids quite yet. If this is “under control,” we’re in trouble.
Today’s revelation is that horsemeat from the UK exported to France into the human food chain, quite possibly for processing and re-entry to the UK, contained the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, often called Bute, which is unsafe for human consumption. There are now two very serious issues at play: 1) criminality in labelling due to what has all the hallmarks of major international fraud, and 2) criminality in presenting unfit meat for sale.
This puts not only UK’s Food Standards Agency, which has apparently permitted the export of UK horsemeat before seeing test results, but also UK Secretary of State Owen Paterson in an increasingly difficult position. Paterson has repeated ad nauseum that we are facing a “straight case of fraud”, not a safety issue, and that the safest option is to eat British products because of the high standards observed in the UK. Even before this claim was demolished by the discovery that in fact UK meat is the safety issue, this did not hold together well. Paterson has insisted that products on sale are safe before testing results were available. He has been shockingly slow to act, then promised no horse carcasses would be released into the food chain until they test clear of Bute, which was either poorly enforced or too late. More disturbingly, by focussing so much attention on the assumed guilt of others, including Eastern European meat handlers who are so far blameless, the much bigger question is still being ignored: How can the Government be so sure our food is safe when it is clear we have no idea what is in it?
Horsemeat may well turn out to be the least of our problems, as Muslim inmates in British prisons know all too well – thanks to testing, they now know they have been fed pork-laced “Halal” meat, but this only gives a glimpse at the scale of the problem. So far, as far as we know, testing is focussed on finding foods in the wrong places, and only in products related to beef. With the exception of Bute, no one is looking for other contaminants that may pose far greater problems.
Lest we forget, it was a UK farmer who put the offspring from clones into the food system illegally in 2009/10, and in 2010/11 secret filming revealed shocking abuses of animals in UK slaughterhouses. So there was ample warning that all is not well in the UK meat industry. Yet the FSA meandered blythely on with its “intelligence-based approach,” which means little more than it only looks for problems in the food supply if someone gives them information about what is there to look for – hardly a robust, or even precautionary, methodology – and the Government appears remarkably willing to take the FSA’s line even when prudence recommends more care. Complacency and complexity have created a system to keep food cheap, rather than safe or wholesome, and now we know where that leads.
A number of UK authorities have been pulled into the vortex. When summoned to give evidence to the Parliamentary Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the FSA blamed the retailers; the retailers blamed their suppliers; the Department of Health said it wasn’t a health issue so it was not its problem; Defra blamed the FSA and retailers and foreigners, and so on. To give credit where it is due, Committee Chair Anne McIntosh MP is taking a strong line, so we can at least have some faith she will not permit the FSA’s “independence” to become a mechanism for everyone to escape political responsibility.
When we get to the end of this trail we need full accountability. That means we need resignations from key senior positions in the FSA and Defra at least. The Department of Health has some serious questions to answer. Apologies to other countries blamed but found innocent would be just. We also need criminal prosecutions of not only the meat cutting and processing facilities implicated, but also the supermarkets who have been selling illegally labelled products for untold periods of time. If the ensuing melee of lawsuits and countersuits rocks the food industry to the core, good. It’s overdue. The smaller, more careful companies that survive will hopefully be more vigilant with their products and reputations, which will help farmers and consumers make the right choices.
Consumers do need to take some responsibility. Supermarkets have poured millions into assuring us that they can be trusted, but it is clear they should have put a little more of that effort into basic quality control over ingredients. They have a lot to answer for, but they only get away with it because so many shoppers place more value in the price of a product that what is in it. We can and should do better.
Then after the cleanup we need to instil a culture of quality and respect in our food system and the mechanisms of independent routine quality control testing to back it up.
For now the fact is we don’t know what is in our food, so we must look very carefully at politicians or regulators or food companies who tell us it is safe. We must also resolve to fight further contamination of our food with industrial experiments like GM animals and clones, legal guidelines for which are expected from the EU soon. Maybe this mess will lead to some good after all.