A recent survey for the Food Standards Agency showed 59% of raw chicken bought at supermarkets contained the potentially deadly bacteria Campylobacter, with 16% being heavily contaminated. This demonstrates, yet again, that the light touch regulation favoured by the UK and Scottish government's is not protecting the consumer.
Campylobacter is the most common form of food poisoning in the UK, affecting more than a quarter of a million people every year. It causes stomach upsets, vomiting and diarrhoea and is responsible for more than 100 deaths a year, costing the economy £900m.
Stephen Jardine highlights the regulatory failure in his Scotsman article, "After a decade of trying to get the poultry industry to clean up its act, the Food Standards Agency had promised to name and shame the worst offenders in the first quarter of its year-long survey. However, pressure from the industry has led the FSA to back down". He concludes "Action will only come when culprits are named and shamed, forcing them to act tough with suppliers to protect their market share. Then, and only then, will things really start to change."
Even that bastion of the free market, The Daily Mail, was outraged, "The survey results are a damning indictment of supermarkets, farmers and processors who are putting customers at risk every day of the week"
Food safety experts have highlighted the close links between the industry and regulators. Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex said, "The FSA has failed to keep its promise to the British public. This means that consumers can no longer trust the FSA to put the interest of consumers ahead of those of the food industry."
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, said the FSA had been ‘captured’ by industry interests. "This is a sad day for British food policy. A quarter of a century after the British learned of the extent of contamination of poultry, we are back again with unacceptable levels of food-borne pathogens. Then, it was salmonella. Now, it’s campylobacter."
In June this year, I gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Health Committee on the Food (Scotland) Bill that will create Food Standards Scotland. I highlighted the work of Scottish meat inspectors in preventing over a million instances of diseased animal carcasses from entering the food chain. The FoI data we released included 100,000 chicken tumours. I said, "This shows what a vital job meat inspectors do. We are calling on the Scottish Government to ensure that Food Standards Scotland is focussed on safety of consumers not food industry profits. Meat inspectors and vets must be able to carry out thorough independent inspections, free from food industry influence."
Meat inspectors and environmental health staff have been warning of the implications of deregulation and cuts in food safety for years. To add to the demoralisation caused by unheeded warnings, meat inspectors are now suffering real term cuts to their pay. They are not even getting the miserly government pay policy. Meat inspectors, official veterinarians and support staff employed by the Food Standards Agency have therefore voted for industrial action. That action will have a serious impact on food output.
The food industry hasn't done enough to clean up its act and deregulation has simply encouraged them to put profits before consumer safety. The FSA has been complicit in this process, being far too close to the industry. The Scottish Government has an opportunity through the establishment of Food Standards Scotland to take a new approach. Early signs are not good with the Scottish Parliament passing regulations that allow visual only inspection of pigs.
Hopefully, this latest survey will cause ministers to think again and put the consumer first.