Friday, 8 March 2013

How much horse would you like with that, Sir?

They didn't really do that, did they?
If it seems as though the horsemeat farce has been shunted onto the back boiler in recent days, don’t worry – this really is a gift horse that keeps on giving.

The latest presents come in the form of two quite extraordinary developments involving the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and seem to have largely slipped under the radar.

I attempt to correct that here – a bit at least.

If we examine these gifts, they appear to suggest that we should not expect very high standards in the food industry.

Let's have a look.

First, public service trade union UNISON (which organises in the meat hygiene sector) spotted that the FSA was involved in a presentation to explore ways to ‘tackle the burden’ of EU legislation.

Because the problem is regulatory legislation. Obviously.

February’s presentation, on ‘how to get what you want in EU negotiations’, from the Better Regulation Executive Europe Team, was set up to address the FSA on ‘how departments can influence EU legislation’, and discuss how they can ‘support the FSA to minimise the burdens of EU legislation’.

As UNISON national officer Ben Priestley put it: “Regulation is not a burden – it is there to protect the consumer, and to keep the public safe.”

A few months ago, while spending a day with trading standards officers in Northampton, a local businessman (who is also a local Conservative councillor) told me in completely uncertain terms that trading standards is a valuable service in protecting both customer and business.

In other words, regulation is beneficial – not a 'burden'.

However, as UNISON points out, in terms of the food industry, light-touch regulation has persisted since the mid-2000s and is a substantial part of the problem.

The union wants to see:

• the reintroduction of daily official inspections of all licensed meat cutting plants and cold storage;

• the testing of horses killed in the UK for the drug Bute, and for the parasite Trichinella Spiralis, which can cause problems for humans;

• a permanent move away from ‘light-touch regulation’, including the inspection of food manufacturing premises.

The next gem from the FSA was revealed in the Telegraph, which noted that the agency is preparing to ask consumers how much horse is acceptable in their spag bol.

FSA chief executive Catherine Brown reported that the agency had found 20 UK food products that were affected by “gross contamination” with horse.

However, she also told the Telegraph that there were lots of other examples of “trace contamination”, where very small amounts of horse or pork have been found in beef products.

She went on to say that such contaminations can occur in a processing plant dealing with more than one species, even if there is “thorough cleaning and good hygiene practice”.

On the surface, this is a classic facepalm moment. The answer surely has to be that 0% horse (or any other meat) is acceptable in a product that is supposed to be, for instance, 100% beef.

It seems batty to even consider asking such a question.

But what it’s actually admitting is that because big food has been caught out with the horsemeat scandal, it's now having to 'fess up to the fact that contamination at a low level is unavoidable simply because of the processes and scale involved in the industrial production of food products.

How many times have you seen, on packaging, warnings along the lines that ‘this product may contain traces of nuts’?

Now, let's say it’s a ham sandwich with some spread and a sprig or two of rocket, all jammed between two slices of white bread. Where would the nut feature?

The cross contamination occurs because foods like this are made in such vast factories, which make such a large range of products, with such a large range of ingredients, that it is impossible to ensure that there is no contamination.

And that is what the FSA is acknowledging.

Now in the case of contamination by nuts (or a variety of other items) the package declares, this both as a warning to anyone with a nut allergy – and also, therefore, as cover for the manufacturer.

Yet it’s taken until now for it to become so clear that even if you thoroughly read the list of ingredients on a packet, that doesn’t mean that you can consider that you know everything that is in that product.

And the fact that this involves horse (and pork in beef products) gives it the added dimension of offending cultural sensibilities – horses as pets – and also religious ones.

What the FSA is now doing, though, is fighting not for the consumer, but for Big Food: on the one hand, creating space for a dialogue about how regulation can be mitigated and, on the other, trying to convince the public – in a massively cack-handed manner – that it cannot expect to buy processed food where it is 100% sure of the content.

It’s the same in other areas of life too (see the pharmaceutical industry), but this is just one more illustration of how we need regulation that, when it says it is 100% independent doesn't turn out to be contaminated by even 1% of conflicting interests.

And it's also yet another illustration – were one actually necessary – of why, if you can, shopping from proper, local, independent shops or from farmers, gives you a far greater chance of not getting some unexpected extra ingredients in your food.

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