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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Horsemeat scandal points to wider food safety concerns

Just about everyone has had some fun in the last week over the horsemeat burgers scandal – “Tesco's burgers, a mane part of a stable diet”, is just one of my favorites. Eating horsemeat in itself may be ‘neigh’ problem, as Christine Jardine argues in today’s Scotsman, but it does raise wider concerns about meat inspection.

With all the focus on horsemeat it has missed most people that the tests also showed that 89% samples had pig meat in them. This is clearly a serious cultural and religious issue for some communities in Scotland and for the rest of us who expect a beefburger to be precisely that. UNISON has previously identified similar concerns over chickens. Ever wondered why some cheap chicken fillets look and taste spongy? It is likely to be that they have been injected with water and pig protein to bulk them up. Check the packet to see what percentage of the chicken is actually chicken next time you buy, or ask the question in the restaurant or carry out.

Proper investment in trading standards and meat hygiene services could have meant the horsemeat burger scandal was picked up in the UK rather than relying on the Irish authorities. However, since 2000 EU officials have tried to push responsibility for abattoir hygiene onto meat plants and to reduce the role of independent meat inspectors, or even transfer their duties under some circumstances to the meat plants themselves. The UK government with its deregulation agenda has also taken hands off approach to meat inspection. Added to which cuts to these vital services are severely limiting the ability of hard-working trading standards officers and meat inspectors to protect the public.

This is now a problem we need to face up to following the announcement last year that Scotland is to have its own food standards body. Something we welcomed in principle but I cautioned that;

“Any change to the delivery module of meat inspection in Scotland should ensure it is protecting the public, not serving industry, therefore we must ensure this is not used as a backdoor to privatisation.”

Scotland has rising levels of E-Coli and our own tragic example of the consequences in the Wishaw outbreak that killed five people. There are over 3,000 reported cases of food poisoning in Scotland every year, although the true figure is thought to be much more as only ten percent of people visit their doctor when they suffer the symptoms. For most of us it can be an unpleasant experience with a day or two off work. However, for vulnerable groups it can be much more serious.

The real danger in this case is the quality and wholesomeness of meat in abattoirs. We need to avoid disease and contamination, and things like excrement making it into our food. This danger is avoided in Scotland by the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs.

Another issue that arises out of the horseburger scandal is food labeling. This is one of the many issues overseen by trading standards officers, yet services across Scotland have reduced as council budgets have dwindled. Trading standards officers work hard to ensure that products pose no risk to consumers, but as their budgets are slashed, their ability to identify problems, inspect premises and prosecute wrongdoers has become severely limited. There are similar issues with Environmental Health staff who are responsible for inspecting food premises.

The public deserve to have confidence in the products they buy; this confidence comes from trading standards services having the resources to check the labeling products and pick up offences early, and from the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs. The issue with horsemeat burgers is yet another example of why the industry should not regulate itself. It is vital that we continue the independent physical inspection of meat in Scotland.


  1. Helpful reminder of how important food safety is. Another public service we take for granted. I lived in Wishaw for many years and remember all too clearly the outbreak and those who died.

  2. Trading Standards have nothing to do with this in Scotland. It's an Environmental Health matter.

  3. I have been a Unison (and previously NALGO) member for over thirty years and find this statement embarrassing! Five times you mention Trading Standards, when they have no remit for this in Scotland. (They do in England)
    Get your facts right and support your Environmental Health members!!!!

    1. Thanks, I do know that and did mention environmental health. The Trading Standards references related to the UK context, but I could have made that clearer. Too much haste.

  4. Food safety is paramount in many aspects of life, and unfortunately has sometimes been underestimated. Problem is, like with most businesses, especially big ones (for some reason, the bigger they get the greedier they get!) as soon as it becomes profit related, then whats really important from a consumers perspective becomes secondary to companies who are interested in nothing but profit, greed and quantity over quality becomes the objective. What can you get for as little cost as possible..wheres the responsibility??, whose taking on the role of doing the right thing?? Answer - No-one..no-one cares to be Frank, as long as they make their margins and they get a nice bonus at the end of the year no doubt...bankers syndrome most likely.

    Im not just taking about the horse meat scandal either, yes this is shocking as it appears noone actually knows whats in the product in the first place, even the supermarkets selling the stuff..again they see "CHEAP" meat and thats all they want and thats the kind of beat they dance to.

    But from Supermarkets to even politicians a revamp on how the UK looks and manages food needs to be looked at.

    Our nation is getting fatter, and food poverty is on the increase, but i tell you something I bet theres still plenty of people getting rich on the back of this arent they?? Think they care, nope not in the slightest!

    Maybe the government is dangling the wrong kind of stick in front of the donkey. Incentives for quality, instead of quantity may need to be considered.