Whether it is the finest cut of Scotch beef or a supermarket ready meal, the British public must have confidence that the food they buy is always safe to eat and properly labelled.
We now know that the public cannot have that confidence. The horse meat scandal demonstrates they have been badly let down by those charged with protecting public health and confidence in food and drink – chiefly, the Government and the Food Standards Agency – who have failed to maintain the minimum that every shopper should expect: that what it says on the tin, or the wrapper, or the box, is true.
The clear suspicion is that criminal activity outwith the UK has been to blame for the scandal, and for the disturbing fact that horse meat masquerading as beef has ended up on supermarket shelves. However, this does excuse the failings of the authorities in the UK. The testing system in this country failed, and failed badly; it is not fit for purpose and requires urgent reform.
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There are some signs – nearly a month into this scandal – that the Food Standards Agency has realised this and its announcement of an increased DNA testing regime is welcome. However, the more fundamental problem is the long-distance, light regulation of the food industry that has allowed companies such as Silvercrest and Dalepak Hambleton to largely regulate themselves. The FSA said yesterday it was asking food businesses to conduct tests on all beef products and provide the results to it, but this is surely the wrong way round. What is required is a regime in which the FSA, and not the manufacturer, routinely organise tests. It is only when food businesses risk getting caught that they will change their habits. Light-touch regulation must be hardened.
However, the solution does not lie only with the food industry – consumers too have played their part in getting us to this point and must play their part in reform also. A generation ago, meat was bought at local butchers that dealt with local suppliers and the food would be prepared from fresh at home. Now, many families struggling to make ends meet, for perfectly understandable reasons, buy more attractively priced ready meals that are the end product of a hidden chain that stretches all over Europe.
If this is to change – and it must if a repeat of the horse meat fiasco is to be avoided – consumers should be reminded of the benefits of local produce, such as beef that is labelled "Scotch" which is, by law, reared, killed and processed in Scotland.
There is also a wider responsibility on Government to ensure the British consumer knows what he or she is eating. Until now, we have relied on the food companies to tell us. They have failed, with potentially catastrophic consequences for consumer confidence.