Horse meat scandal expert warns budget cuts could compromise food safety

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
18 March 2014

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18 March 2014 | Will Green

The expert investigating the horse meat scandal has warned that budget cuts to the Trading Standards service must not compromise food safety “to such a point that people start to die”.

Professor Chris Elliott, of the Institute for Global Food Security, commented on claims made in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme that the service faces cuts of 40 per cent which could lead to a reduction in the number of Trading Standards officers from 3,000 in 2009 to around 1,900 in 2015.

The programme – shown on Monday and entitled Food: What’s Really In Your Trolley? – also claimed the number of public food testing laboratories had fallen from 15 to 11 in the past three years.

Elliott told the programme: “What we have to be careful of is that the budget cutting gets to a point where the integrity of our supply chains, the safety of the food that people eat, gets compromised to such a point that people start to die. I certainly hope that it doesn’t happen and all the indications are at the minute that the food industry is stepping up to the mark. They’re doing more checking and testing; but the food industry can’t do it on their own. What we need are strong regulators and well-resourced regulators.”

Elliott produced an interim report into the horse meat scandal in December, in which he called for standardised food testing backed by a “sustainable public sector laboratory system”.

Andy Foster, operations and policy director at the Trading Standards Institute, told the programme: “You take money out of sampling, you take money out of inspection, you take money out of the consumer protection system. You will get increased levels of fraudulent activity and you make the consumer protection regime that’s designed to deal with it much more impotent – and that’s a big concern. When you have some authorities – like some in London – operating on one Trading Standards officer, how on earth can they possibly deal with all their demands from fraudulent activity?”

The Food Standards Agency said its figures showed a 23 per cent drop in officers carrying out food safety enforcement between 2009 and 2012 and there were 17 labs carrying out food testing if those with multiple sites were taken into consideration. It said 84,000 food safety, composition and authenticity tests were carried out during 2012/13 and local authorities had received an extra £2.2 million this year to support testing.

“Consumer protection is the key priority for the FSA and local authorities, and enforcement officers are working smarter to target areas most likely to be at risk,” a spokesman said. 

“We are also developing a new intelligence hub to better identify, and prevent, threats to food safety and integrity, and we will continue to work closely with the food industry, local authorities and our counterparts in Europe to ensure that the consumer is protected.”

 

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