A report by the National Audit Office has found that, while arrangements for identifying and testing for risks to food safety are relatively mature and effective, similar arrangements for the authenticity of food are not. Government failed to identify the possibility of adulteration of beef products with horsemeat despite indications of heightened risk.
According to today’s report, a split in responsibilities for food policy between the Food Standards Agency and two Whitehall departments in 2010 has led to confusion among stakeholders about the role of the Agency and Defra in responding to food authenticity incidents.
An Agency review found that some of their staff and local authorities were confused, during the early stages of the response to the January 2013 incident, about why the Agency was taking the lead in investigating the incident. Local authorities said they continue to be unclear on whom to contact in certain areas of food policy.
Local authorities reported 1,380 cases of food fraud in 2012 – up by two-thirds since 2010. The Government recognizes that it needs to address weaknesses in its intelligence gathering and sharing and its understanding of opportunities for fraud throughout the modern food chain.
The Agency does not have a complete picture of all public testing. Only one-third of English local authorities record laboratories’ test results on the Agency’s national database. The total number of food samples tested by official control laboratories in England has gone down by a quarter since 2009-10. Although a substantial amount of testing is carried out by private food businesses, public authorities do not know the amount, nature or results of these tests. Government is working with industry to identify and overcome barriers to sharing intelligence.
Among the NAO’s recommendations is that some resource should be shifted from such activities as the inspection of slaughter houses to the checking of the manufacture of processed meat products and the long supply chains involved, but this will require European agreement.
“The January 2013 horsemeat incident has revealed a gap between what citizens expect of the controls over the authenticity of their food, and the effectiveness of those controls in reality. The division of responsibilities for food safety and authenticity has created confusion. The Government needs to remove this confusion, and improve its understanding of potential food fraud and how intelligence is brought together and shared."
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 10 October 2013
Estimated spend in 2011-12 to protect consumers from food incidents
75 per cent
Of this spend related to local authorities in 2011-12 to enforce food law
Departments in England with responsibility for aspects of food policy
26 per cent
Fall in the number all local authority food samples tested since 2009-10
Different national and European databases housing data on food intelligence
New reports of fraud recorded on the National Food Fraud database in 2012, up two-thirds since 2009
The UK authorities had not tested for possible horsemeat adulteration since 2003 when no significant problem was found. It was Irish authorities that decided in November 2012 to test for adulteration of beef products, as beef prices had increased substantially in the past few years while the worldwide price of horsemeat had fallen. There were thus incentives for fraud. The Irish Food Safety Authority found that beef products may have been adulterated with horsemeat since at least April 2012, and had likely been present for longer.
The horsemeat incident turned out to be primarily an authenticity issue (substitution of beef with horse) but the possibility of phenylbutazone, or 'bute' contamination, meant it could have been a safety issue.
Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Amyas Morse, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 860 staff. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy.