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Horse meat story yet another instance of regulatory failure

Your leader ("Meat scare gives food for thought", February 9) makes trenchant and important points both about public health and the failings of light regulation regimes in the UK.

The horse meat story is not in any way of the same order of magnitude as the BSE debacle. Nevertheless, it has produced similar premature and ill-considered responses from UK ministers as that crisis did. David Cameron tells us it is not "about food safety". The UK environment minister Owen Paterson has now reportedly said he would eat withdrawn meat products because "they pose no threat to human health" – so reminiscent of John Selwyn Gummer eating a beefburger with his daughter when scientific civil servants made similar assertions.

There are food safety problems, food safety concerns and food scares. The horse meat story is not a scare because we do not know what sort of public health problem if any it may present. It is certainly a concern and a potential threat to public health, especially at a time when in Scotland there has been a drop in the numbers of environmental health officers who deal with this and related matters. Also, if regulators are not aware where, how, when and under what conditions horse meat is put into the food chain, then food safety cannot be guaranteed.

Historically, horse meat in Europe has presented threats to human health from salmonella and trichinella as well as potential exposure to the heavy metal cadmium. While cooking and processing might remove some of these threats, we cannot be sure all such threats, including new veterinary drugs used on horses, have been either identified or fully assessed for their effects when consumed by humans.

These failures of inspection, regulation and enforcement are equally pressing in other parts of society beyond the infamous failed financial sectors. They are graphically illustrated by the recent horrors of patient care in some English hospitals and in UK infection control lapses. We should join up all the dots on the failings of de facto deregulation, smart regulation, responsive and better regulation across health, the environment and work as these present a growing and often hidden threat to our public health in many ways.

Professor Andrew Watterson,

Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group,

RG Bomont Building R3T11,

University of Stirling.

As a professional food scientist who has worked in industry for more than 35 years, I am saddened to observe the decay in standards forced by the supermarkets' "drive to the bottom" on price. Supermarket buyers often show no knowledge or understanding of technical standards or specifications and treat them as secondary in the rush to get lower prices.

No amount of end product-testing will guarantee good products. The only sensible approach is to make sure the whole process is correct, particularly the supply of proper raw materials. As an auditor I can testify to the difficulty in making sure a paper trail is accurate and valid. Suppliers should have to demonstrate they meet specifications before the price is settled, and supermarkets must be made accountable for the provenance of their products.

The food industry is Scotland's largest employer and our local authorities are cutting the numbers of experienced environmental health officers (EHOs) by offering early retirement to save costs. Fewer than half of Scotland's councils are offering EHO training positions. As Professor Hugh Pennington pointed out in his report on the E. coli outbreak in south Wales in 2005, regulations are pointless if they are not enforced.

I buy my meat from a local butcher whenever possible. He knows where the animals come from, where they were slaughtered and how far the meat has travelled to get to his counter. I am lucky to be able to afford to do that. Others are not.

Bill Crosson,

4 Troon Gardens,

Cumbernauld, Glasgow.

The horse meat story adds weight to my impression that there is a section of the population who believe they are above the rest of us and above the law.

Whether bankers mis-selling PPI to rack up huge bonuses, hospitals pursuing production targets at the cost of compassion and care, MPs creatively claiming expenses or tax avoiders, they seem to hide behind corporate or institutional barriers to openness, and distance themselves from personal responsibility.

I hope we see criminal prosecutions of individuals, rather than fines imposed on institutions, with restorative justice practices enabling perpetrators to develop greater understanding of the effects of their actions.

Peter Moore,

3 Bellevue Road,

Ayr.

Contextual targeting label: 
Food and drink

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