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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.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Food safety needs a credible inspection regime

Food safety matters. We need to cut through the jargon in corporate strategies and stand up for properly resourced and independent inspection of the food we eat.


Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has published its corporate strategy for the period up to April 2019. The document claims that "to put the consumer at the heart of what we do, we need to understand what matters to consumers in relation to food. Consumers have told us that trust is essential for FSS, so we need to earn and keep that trust."



They helpfully, if alarmingly, remind us that food safety is a significant health issue in Scotland. They estimate that there are approximately 43,000 cases of foodborne infectious intestinal disease (IID) annually, leading to 5,800 GP visits and 500 hospital admissions. Just one example is Campylobacter, with between 55‐75% of all reported cases of Campylobacter infection in Scotland associated with a chicken source. A significant proportion of fresh chicken on retail sale in the UK is contaminated with the pathogen.


The FSS is directly responsible for official meat controls and provides guidance to local authorities who are supposed to deliver other inspections. The strategy seeks to reassure us that "protecting public health remains our key objective."


So far so good. However, later in the paper we are told that, "We will review these programmes so that they are proportionate and do not place undue burdens either on the industries we regulate or on taxpayers."


Based on past experience this sounds like code for further deregulation of meat inspection. Until recently the FSS was part of the U.K. Food Standards Agency. They have just published a document: “Regulating Our future”, in which they announce an intention to introduce a free ride for businesses who’ve passed an assessment visit sometime in the last few years or allow approved companies to provide assurance of food hygiene standards alongside local authorities. In short, the FSA are going to reduce meat and other food inspection and hand over responsibility to industry. 


In fact, FSS are already going down this road with white meat by replacing independent FSS poultry meat inspectors with plant employed poultry inspection assistants. When inspection probably costs little more than a penny a bird, this is short-sighted in the extreme.


The FSA have used 'proportionate' and 'undue burdens' in the past as justification for deregulation and we must be suspicious that the FSS review is heading in the same direction. The meat industry is a powerful lobby and their need to maximise profit has often triumphed over consumer protection.


We should be equally concerned over the capacity of local authorities to meet their obligations in relation to food safety. Environmental health departments have been the subject of significant cuts in recent years and many are struggling to undertake regular inspections of food premises. The review could also impact on their roles.


As always with corporate strategies you need to look beyond the fine words and look at the actions. The review of regulatory programmes is one to watch carefully.


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