Shadow environment secretary says drive to deregulate food safety industry has led to chaotic system with fewer checks
Government cuts and a coalition drive to deregulate the food safety industry has led to a chaotic system with fewer checks and no one authority in overall charge, according to Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s “bonfire of the quangos” shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.
Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.
“The government has taken a system that was working reasonably well and in a drive to deregulate, has created a more fragmented and bureaucratic system and this horsemeat scandal has shown that there are serious flaws that need to be addressed,” said Creagh.
Local authority trading standards officers are responsible for food inspections across the UK but unions say the service has been badly hit by government cuts. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that funding for trading standards services will fall from £213m in the 2011-12 to £140m by 2014.
Unison’s assistant general secretary, Karen Jennings, said that figure had already fallen from £280m in the past few years. “Trading standards officers work hard to ensure that products pose no risk to consumers, but as their budgets are slashed, their ability to identify problems, inspect premises and prosecute wrongdoers has become severely limited,” she said.
According to information released to Unison under the Freedom of Information Act, 743 jobs were lost in trading standards at council level between 2009-10 and 2011-12.
On top of this, Unison says, there is pressure to reduce the number of “meat inspectors” who monitor the quality and safety of meat as it leaves UK abattoirs.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, said the government had cut the Food Standards Agency and other independent bodies since 2010.
“History shows that good governance requires critical internal and external voices to keep ministers informed and monitor what is happening,” he said. “The coalition has restricted that capacity to audit and inspect, partly by cuts and partly by ideologically demanding a light-touch approach.”
Lang said that when it was set up in 2000, the FSA had improved food regulation but had gradually become cosier with the food industry. “The FSA needs to be a strong voice. Muting it made this food crisis much more likely.”
A government spokesman defended the current system, saying it was not an issue of “departmental responsibilities”: “By law retailers are ultimately responsible for ensuring their products’ safety and accurate labelling. However, we join up across government to back this up with more than 100,000 risk-based checks each year.”
The government has also been criticised by the British Horse Society, which said a decision to withdraw funding for a national database last year means it will be more difficult to trace when horsemeat enters food. It claims unscrupulous owners could now acquire extra “horse passports”.
“All horses must have a passport which contains details of the drugs that a horse is given during its lifetime,” said the society in a statement. “If a horse receives certain drugs, it may not be slaughtered for human consumption due to fears over the effects of these drugs on people. However, with no central database to facilitate checks it is now possible for a horse to be issued with two passports; one in which medication is recorded and an apparently clean one to be presented at the time of slaughter – allowing the medicated horse to be passed as fit for consumption.”