Anne Milton, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health, through whom the FSA reports to Parliament, told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee (EFRA) that the FSA had done a good job in handling the European Commission’s disproportionate and “draconian” demands, which even the Commission had agreed were not based on concerns over public health.
She said that the FSA’s prompt action had prevented a high profile media story breaking that could have caused significant damage to the reputation of the UK meat industry irrespective of the fact that there was no threat to food safety. She confirmed that once she had been assured of this point, her concern was to notify Defra and ensure that the impact on the industry was minimised, being mindful that damaging media speculation might erroneously suggest that a health risk existed.
She told the committee that had they [the FSA] got this decision wrong, the consequences would have been “more serious”, not only in the Commission implementing ‘safeguards’, but also for the reputation of the industry.
She said: “I would not willingly damage industry in this country, but... the thing I wanted to avoid was to set a hare running on a food safety question. It was not simply about refusing the Commission, there would have been consequence, not least in the media.
“It is due to the FSA and their actions that this didn’t run as a big story - and we haven’t had people boycotting meat and meat products as a result of fears over safety, so from that point of view, this was successful.
“When faced with a crisis, the choice we made was the least worst option - but we don’t want to end up here again.”
“The Commission did something extremely damaging to us as a country and as a government and that needs to be looked at.”
She gave a fairly damning assessment of the Commission, saying that it appeared that it was hard to pin down what it had tried to achieve and that it had not looked at the consequences, adding that it seemed its processes were more important than the outcome. She confirmed that there was no way that the FSA could have anticipated the ‘damaging’ measures adopted by the Commission.