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I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Lessons from the horsemeat scandal

The horsemeat scandal should be an alarm call for government and the industry over the importance of food safety. The Scudamore Report on the incident makes recommendations for future action.

The Scottish Government has now published the report of the expert advisory group (EAG) on the horsemeat scandal. I would highlight a few key points from the report.

Firstly the EAG recognises the stretched resources of local authorities. This is something UNISON Scotland recently highlighted following a survey of members working on food safety. The report states:

"A number of Scottish Local Authorities believe that the impact that a situation similar to the recent horsemeat crisis has on the already stretched resources of Local Authorities needs careful consideration. A review of local resources including all aspects of food standards enforcement would possibly find many Local Authorities under major resource pressures. At a time when Local Authorities’ budgets are declining it will be critical to decide what is required and whether priorities need to change."

Secondly, while the horsemeat scandal was primarily a labelling issue, the EAG recognises the importance of strong inspection and sampling regimes. UNISON Scotland has previously warned that these regimes have been weakened in recent years, largely at the behest of the industry. The report states:

"In dealing with processes it was important that the inspection and sampling regimes by both Local Authorities and industry were appropriate and well-targeted to the areas of highest risk. Audit and inspection by the Local Authorities and the FSA operations service was important as was the development of accreditation and assurance schemes."

"FSA Scotland should ensure that unannounced visits to cutting plants and other food businesses take place with frequency based on risk and known compliance with the regulations."

Thirdly, the EAG highlights the importance of strong sanctions. Current sanctions are simply not up to the job. The report states:

"A robust regulatory regime with strong sanctions was essential particularly where there was clear evidence of large scale fraudulent activity. Meaningful fines or custodial penalties need to accompany serious food fraud otherwise it will continue to be seen as a relatively risk free enterprise."

Overall, this report is a welcome recognition of the task facing the new Scottish FSA. The light touch regulatory approach is inadequate for both food safety and the industry. The Scottish Government needs to take a much more robust approach and resource it.

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