Horsemeat scandal: food safety expert warns issues have not been addressed
Chris Elliott led an inquiry into last year’s saga and says problems remain with proper control of UK food supply chain
Zoe Wood and Felicity Lawrence
Thursday 4 September 2014 19.54 BST
The battle to offer lower prices to shoppers is putting the squeeze on food manufacturers and risking a repeat of last year’s food scandal, in which beef burgers and ready meals on supermarket shelves around the country were found to be laced with horsemeat.
The warning was sounded by Professor Chris Elliott, who led the independent inquiry into the largest food fraud in decades. His report demands the creation of a new food crime unit, with full police powers to fight criminals cashing in on supermarkets’ determination to minimise the prices they pay to suppliers.
Elliott, a food safety academic from Belfast’s Queen’s University, told the Guardian he had kept in close contact with meat processors since the horsemeat scandal and that while some believed industry practices had improved, others had reported a return to the aggressive buying negotiations that drove producers to breach specifications before.
“If it goes back to the bad old days of very short contracts and buying at or below cost, that will inevitably cause processors to cut corners,” he said.
The country’s supermarket industry is in turmoil at present as the growth of German discounters Aldi and Lidl, coupled with the prolonged squeeze on consumer spending, puts pressure on established chains such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons to make big price cuts.
But the global food supply chain is vast and complex, with ingredients for simple ready meals sourced from multiple countries. The scale of the business means that supermarkets cannot monitor every step of the chain, which could allow rogue operators to strike.
Within the meat industry, the review highlighted several weak spots that could be preyed on by fraudsters, including the cold stores where meat is stored, transportation to the UK, and the frozen blocks of meat that are used in production. Offal, such as the heart or lungs, from cheaper species can be mixed into these blocks to make it look like higher-quality lean meat, it warned. Researchers had also received information about meat suitable only for pet food being reclassified as fit for human consumption.
Elliott said the drive to cut prices on supermarket shelves was increasing the level of risk within the food chain. “Recent reports in the media show the emergence of a new price war between some major retailers, and suppliers are already under pressure to further reduce prices.”
Goods being bought for less than the recognised “reasonable” price was a key concern, he said. “This is neither good for the sustainability of UK farming nor the integrity of the food industry, and ultimately impacts negatively on consumers,” he said. “The food industry needs to realise the extent of their exposure should adulteration or substitution occur, both in terms of the potential for the endangerment of customers, and brand damage and loss of revenue.”
The horsemeat scandal erupted in January 2013 and went on to engulf a swath of the British food industry. Retailers including Tesco, Asda, Aldi, and manufacturers such as Findus were forced to withdraw millions of beef burgers, ready meals and packs of mince as the extent of the fraud became apparent. Tests revealed that some Findus beef lasagnes were made completely out of horsemeat while Tesco pulled one of its “Value” burger lines, made by an Irish supplier, which was found to contain 29% horsemeat.
Companies right across Europe were caught up in the adulteration but the complexity of the supply chain and the difficulty of tracking ownership of the meat across borders has made it hard to pin down where the actual crime of mislabelling horsemeat as beef took place.
Elliott’s review offers a devastating critique of the inadequacies of the system that is supposed to protect the country’s food chain, revealing:
• The public laboratory service, which tests whether foods are safe and what they claim to be, is in crisis because of deep cuts in local authority budgets and needs urgent restructuring. Testing food cannot be left to the private sector which has different priorities, it concludes.
• Local authority enforcement services have been “cut to the bone”. Trading Standards departments will have suffered an average 40% cut in England and Wales over the lifetime of this parliament. Any further cuts here would leave local authorities “unable to effectively protect consumers” from fraudsters.
• The original investigation in to the horsemeat crime was conducted by regulators “at least in part with insufficient experience or expertise in the investigation of serious food crime and none at all in tackling complex organised crime”.
• None of the bodies that might be expected to investigate serious organised crime in the food sector – from the Metropolitan police and other police forces to the Serious Fraud Office, and the National Crime Agency — see it as their role.
• Supermarket and industry audits manage to be both enormously burdensome and futile in detecting fraud. Audits should be unannounced inspections, whereas the majority are currently pre-announced. They need to be radically changed to include forensic auditing.
The review was commissioned in February 2013 and originally due in the spring of this year. Sources told the Guardian that Elliott came under sustained pressure to water down some of his findings, leading to a delay in its publication. Nonetheless the academic stood by the substance of interim findings published at the end of last year.
At the height of the scare, which triggered a slump in sales of red meat including frozen burgers and readymeals, Tesco took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers to reassure customers it was a brand they could trust. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) defended food retailers, arguing that they would not “be that stupid or short-termist” in their dealings with suppliers. “I don’t think any major retailer would take that kind of risk with a product that could then compromise their brand,” said Andrew Opie, its food and sustainability director. …
One of the most contentious issues in the horsemeat scandal has been whether the coalition government’s decision to strip the Food Standards Authority of responsibility for food authenticity contributed to the crisis. The final report ducks apportioning blame and finds that the FSA’s programme to check the authenticity of food was already being wound down before the election. But it notes that greater clarity is needed about where the boundaries lie between the Department for the Environment, the Department of Health and the FSA “to ensure there is no repeat of the confusion which occurred at the beginning of the horsemeat incident”.
There is still no proper coordination across Whitehall – with no regular high level meetings between the chair of the FSA and the health and environment secretaries, the report says – and a new national food safety and food crime committee which could report to the crisis Cobra committee in the event of another scandal is needed.