I don't often quote the heir to the throne approvingly, but on food production Prince Charles has a point. Health Warning: don’t read this blog before you eat meat!
UNISON Scotland has made its submission to the Scottish Government consultation on a new food standards body for Scotland. Food safety is a devolved issue, even if you might not have realised that during the horsemeat scandal, but many of the functions have been administered by the UK Food Standards Agency. The Scottish Government now plans to create a Scottish quango to do this - something we support.
The establishment of such an agency is in principle unlikely to be controversial. What it does might be more of an issue. The consultation paper talks rather vaguely about other roles. It is unclear if this might include environmental health functions currently administered by local authorities, or public health roles carried out by NHS Scotland. Either way, any centralisation of functions currently delivered locally would be wrong in principle. The Scottish Government has form on centralisation, so this needs watching.
Another reason for concern over widening the role of the new body is the FSA approach to regulation. It is not unusual for government bodies to become 'captured' by their main client group. Our concern is that the UK FSA was much too close to the meat industry and promoted 'light touch' regulation, even during the horsemeat scandal.
We need to avoid this in Scotland, but it will be challenging. The Environment Minister's main concern during the horsemeat scandal was to protect the Scottish Meat brand. Now, Scottish Meat is undoubtedly very good, but it is also a premium product, out of the reach of low paid consumers. These consumers need regulatory protection for mass market products. I would also argue that Scottish Meat needs this. It takes many years to build a brand, but just one scandal to destroy it.
The Scottish Government should take the opportunity in establishing the new body to ensure its independence and end the dominance of the food industry in lobbying for lighter regulation. For example, the transfer in 2006 of responsibility for ensuring only clean livestock are slaughtered, from the state controlled Meat Hygiene Service to the slaughterhouse Food Business Operators. This and current proposed changes such as introducing visual inspections instead of cutting animals open to check for sickness or diseases are dangerous steps that Scotland can correct. Below are a couple of examples of what can be missed if you rely on visual inspections only.
Whatever the meat lobby might achieve in Europe or at UK level, we need to ensure that such conditions don’t enter the food chain in Scotland. This means independent, qualified and skilled officials making these decisions, not the people who work for the meat plants. They may or may not be under pressure to maximise profit and minimise waste for the meat plant owner. The important point is that consumer confidence requires independent inspection and that needs to be rebuilt after the horsemeat scandal.
Independent officials carry out ante & post mortems on every red meat animal we eat to ensure the consumer does not eat abscesses, tumours, pneumonia, parasitic cysts and a host of other culinary delights. Personally, I prefer it that way! So let’s make sure the new food safety body in Scotland does as well.