Government launches supply network review

The government has announced a post-horsemeat review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks, despite the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee calling for action rather than review.

The announcement was made at a debate into the horsemeat scandal at Westminster Hall, as EFRA chair Anne McIntosh explained there was a need for action because the government’s response to the incident had been too slow.

MP and newly appointed waste, water and forestry minister Dan Rogerson explained that the new review would “focus on consumer confidence in the authenticity of food products, identifying any weaknesses which could have implications for food safety and authenticity”, and be separate from the first review, which looked into the incident itself.

Speaking on behalf of the Committee, McIntosh had expressed concern over the government’s response to the incident, asking why it took two months for the FSA to conduct and authorise any testing after the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) said it was developing new methodology for measuring food composition. She also questioned the slow progress of investigations, pointing out that those responsible for the contamination were meant to “face the full force of the law”, but had not.

In response, Rogers said that a distinction had to be made between the development of new testing methods by the FSAI and the discovery of horsemeat. He added that the government shared EFRA’s desire to see those responsible brought to justice, but that investigations were a criminal matter and it would not be right for government to intervene.

“If we wanted faster response, we may well have ended up with lesser fines of the sort that the members here today have been concerned about. We would have had a local authority response to a lower level that would have been swifter, but would not perhaps have picked up the issues,” he added.

Rogerson said that during the incident, the government had focused on working with the industry and local authorities to establish the scale of the problem, initiating investigations and prompting European action to deal with the actions. He said that its focus was now “on learning and sharing the lessons from the incident and improving the current approach to food authenticity and fraud.”

McIntosh also said there needed to be a better clarity of the role of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and that the Agency should be given stronger powers to better tackle contamination scandals.

Rogerson replied: “The recent horsemeat incident has demonstrated that FSA and Defra can work together to address issues such as food fraud but we recognise that there is always more to be done to ensure that stakeholders understand where those boundaries lie and why, even if they don’t agree with them.”

Scapegoats

Meanwhile, MP for Ogmore Huw Irranca-Davies expressed concern that “relatively small players” had ended up “being scapegoats” for the whole industry.

He warned against laying too much blame on specific companies, stating that the whole supply chain should take responsibility for the incident.

“No one escapes responsibility for the mess we got ourselves into and no one can avoid responsibility for restoring trust in the supply chains. It’s not good enough to say ‘it wasn’t us governor’ because as far as the consumer is concerned, it is,” he added.

“We got away with it”

MP for Tiverton and Honiton Neil Parish raised some eyebrows with the claim that the industry “got away with it” because there were no illnesses resulting from the contamination. He was dismissed by several members of the debate, including MP for Brecon and Radnorshire Roger Williams, who pointed out that no-one knew the provenance of the horsemeat, so there was no way of knowing whether it was safe.

Parish also claimed that retailers had a responsibility to check they were paying a fair price for beef, and question any product that was cheaper than it should be.

Rogerson agreed, and said the government review would look into how the responsibility of the industry to secure its own supply chains.

The debate also heard a collective urge by MPs to take action regarding passports for horses.

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