Parliamentarians say scaling down of food safety regulator’s powers has reduced chances of spotting mislabelled food
Ministers have been “flat-footed” in their handling of the horsemeat scandal and have “weakened” the capacity of regulators to spot mislabelled food by scaling down the powers of the food safety regulator, according to a damning report from a cross-party group of MPs.
The highly critical report came as two surveys of public attitudes to the scandal found that public confidence in food has been hit, with between a third and a half of consumers saying they would stop buying processed meat.
The verdict of the MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee is likely to be seen by the coalition’s critics as a crushing condemnation of ministers’ attempts to deregulate the food industry.
But ministers will take comfort from the fact that few consumers appear, so far, to blame the government for the crisis with meat processors and food manufacturers shouldering the odium.
Highlighting the “diminished role” of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) since it lost staff and funding in 2010, the MPs recommend that:
• The FSA must be given tougher powers to force producers to test their products.
• Any test results – for example by supermarkets – must be reported to the FSA whether tests are ordered by the agency or carried out independently.
• There should be a broader range of testing to provide greater assurance to consumers.
In a highly embarrassing section for ministers, the committee was also critical of the government’s current plans to reduce food labelling standards.
Ministers are seeking UK exemption from proposed new EU rules which would require the declaration of the amount of meat in loose fresh meat products. The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) also wants to allow minced meat sold in the UK to have a higher fat and collagen content than permitted in other EU states.
“This is not the time for the government to be proposing reducing the labelling standards applied to British food,” said the MPs, who also want tighter UK controls on horse passports and more EU-wide checks on abattoirs and ports.
Ministers should also examine the practicality of making factories have separate production lines for different meat products and ensure certified religiously prepared food is sufficiently controlled.
An online survey of 1,946 people conducted for Sky News by pollsters YouGov on Tuesday and Wednesday suggested one in five had changed their shopping habits as a result of the scandal and more than half of them had stopped buying processed meat altogether.
But while 49% of those questioned blamed meat processing companies for the crisis and 20% food manufacturers, only 10% blamed supermarkets. There was some comfort for ministers in that only 3% directly blamed the government and 8% the FSA.
A poll of 6,620 people for the Kantar group which runs consultancy, advisory and market research services conducted on Monday, found that 36% were less likely to purchase processed meat as a result of the scandal with a similar proportion saying it would make no difference. A quarter of people claimed they did not buy processed meat anyway.
The MPs’ report follows a short inquiry, launched after tests by Irish authorities published last month revealed horse and pork contamination of frozen beef products. It criticised the FSA for not acting when it knew of its Irish counterpart’s intentions in November.
The agency, said the MPs, appeared “to have been insufficiently curious to consider whether similar testing would have been appropriate in the UK”.
They added: “The contamination of products in the UK may have come to light earlier if the FSA and their Irish counterparts had had a more collaborative approach.”
Under the coalition government’s paring down of the agency, which was founded by Labour in response to the BSE crisis, it was left with a “core remit” of food safety and implementation of the food labelling and composition policy. Other functions including policy and nutrition labelling were transferred to the health department, while food labelling and composition policy, not related to safety, went to Defra.
The committee warned the FSA’s now weaker role “has led to a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies, and this has weakened the UK’s ability to identify and respond to food standards concerns”.
The report added that “the current contamination crisis has caught the FSA and government flat-footed and unable to respond effectively within structures designed primarily to respond to threats to human health”.
In a recommendation made before current investigations were launched into alleged fraud at two UK plants, the committee said that if sites in “any particular member state” were identified as a source of contamination, “we recommend that the government discuss with the commission now the circumstances and legal basis for a suspension of meat exports from that particular member state should that course of action become appropriate.”
Ministers had said before the UK plants were identified and raided on Tuesday that they could not seek to suspend exports from any other European country because there was no health risk from mislabelling.
Anne McIntosh the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, who chairs the committee, said: “The scale of contamination emerging in the meat supply chain is breathtaking.
“More revelations will doubtless come to light in the UK and across the EU.
“There is every indication that horsemeat has been intentionally substituted for beef by criminals with access to the food industry.
“Elements within the food industry have duped consumers in the UK and across Europe in pursuit of profit.”