Setting the standard
The quality and safety of food is never, it seems, far from the spotlight.
No sooner was the dust of the scandal of horsemeat being substituted for beef appearing to settle, but a new instance of diners eating one thing while believing it was another was unearthed, when tests revealed beef replaced lamb in some curry houses.
Perhaps inevitably, food scandals also bring with them a great deal of soul-searching and questions are then asked about whether they could have been picked up sooner and more done to prevent them happening in the first place.
The horsemeat scandal has been a perfect example. After the outrage over what is generally now accepted to have been massive food fraud, questions have been asked of the Food Standards Agency in Scotland about the number of tests of food that had been carried out.
Director Charles Milne said: “It seems strange to me as an organisation that you identify a problem, you take really robust action and get a lot of criticism, whereas if you hadn’t been so assiduous and hadn’t identified the problem, everybody would be quite happy.
“There has been some criticism of the organisation for not picking up the issue earlier.
That’s almost inevitable – it doesn’t matter how early you pick something up, you could have picked it up earlier.
“I think the response has been really robust and so far I haven’t seen any criticism about the handling since the issue was identified, I think it’s been a really strong job and I would really pay tribute to the staff in here and across the UK and also the local authorities who have responded really, really well. The public should have real confidence they are being protected.” The horsemeat scandal broke in January in burger meat tested in the Republic of Ireland, by the FSA Ireland (FSAI). Milne says that the result was not a total surprise as they had been informed last year that their Irish counterparts were developing a test for horse DNA.
Testing is now more targeted and focused on intelligence – using resources more widely – although Milne says that the FSAI has informed them the horsemeat was discovered from “a completely random sample”.
While they were prepared for the result announced on 15 January, he said: “I think what surprised me about this instance is the scale of it.
“There are always cases of people taking shortcuts and I could quote a long list of food crimes over the past years, but this is widespread throughout the whole European Union.” This month, though, tests carried out last year by the Scottish Food Enforcement Liaison Committee – part of the FSA, revealed that of 129 tests from Indian restaurants, 46 had cheaper cuts of beef passed off as lamb – with 33 of them containing no beef at all.
Milne says this is a completely separate issue to the food fraud that has taken place involving horsemeat and “appears to be a very local issue where individual catering establishments are using a cheaper source of protein”.
The FSA currently funds £166,000 a year to supplement local authorities’ own sampling regimes and says it would be possible to raise this amount from the £10.9m pot, but the more targeted testing is making the system better equipped to pick up contamination and possible substitutions. Last year there were 18,000 authenticity samples taken across the UK and 1,359 in Scotland, but Milne said, given the thousands of product lines, it was unrealistic to expect every single one to be tested.
“My own view is that there’s only so much you can achieve by sampling. Realistically, you cannot sample everything, so the intelligence based approach is definitely the right one.” However, he adds: “If I was being critical, whilst we’ve identified that in the current economic climate there was an increased driver for food fraud, we didn’t identify horse as a particular vehicle for that fraud and I think we need to think on the back of this how better we take the high level risk and identify the practical implications of that.”
One question raised in the light of the issue is what else could be used as substitutes in meat, but Milne is keen to reassure over this.
“Thinking of the scale of this, the question you have to ask is what species of meat are available in the quantity that you would consider to be used fraudulently in the food chain.
“The reality is we slaughter pork, beef, lamb poultry in mass quantities and we’ve been testing for those for years. We didn’t pick up horse, which is slaughtered in reasonable quantities, nowhere near the quantities of the other species.
“Other than that, there is a small number of goat for human consumption, but there is not a lot of other species that are slaughtered in the quantity that would result in significant fraud.
“There’s been all sorts of pontificating on other species like dog and cat and frankly, that is not going to be a mass fraud. There’s no slaughtering facilities of these species. Nobody is going to be gathering enough animals of those species to make any significant impact on the market without noticing these animals are disappearing.”
Thankfully, the one thing that has not been compromised in the horsemeat scandal has been the safety aspect. Tests for the veterinary drug Phenylbutazone or bute have proved negative and in any case would have been in such small doses that the risk to humans would have been extremely low. In addition, the horsemeat has come from legitimate slaughter houses, albeit by illegitimate means, so Milne says there have not been concerns over microbiological parasites.
However, a huge amount of the agency’s work is concerned with food poisoning outbreaks, or preventing outbreaks from happening.
“I think the public think that food safety is fixed,” Milne says.
“You talk to many people through our citizen forums and they are of the opinion that the food they buy is completely safe. In one respect that’s good that there’s a confidence.But actually, we know a million people every year in the UK get sick with food poisoning, 20,000 of those people get hospitalised and 500 people a year die of food-related disease. So it isn’t fixed, there’s a lot of work to be done.”
The agency has a Food Hygiene Information Scheme which he says is a really powerful way of upping standards in catering premises, giving restaurants and takeways a ‘pass’ or ‘improvement required’ certificate – and crucially, publishing the results online.
Many basic practices that are now put in place in restaurants and even homes, have resulted from outbreaks in the past. He mentions the typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen in 1964 which saw 500 people quarantined in hospital. It was traced back to a single can of corned beef, but was spread by cross-contamination.
“We’ve produced guidance for people producing raw and cooked products. The principle is you don’t actually use the same complex of equipment for both.
“All of that has come out of food incidents in the past.” But he is still frustrated in some other areas that “simple lessons don’t get learned”.
“Hand washing – we know whether it’s swine flu in people or food poisoning, we should wash our hands regularly, but it’s not happening.
People know that the use-by date is a safety date. You should not use food after a use-by date, but people do.” The agency is already preparing for one of the major events of 2014 – the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – which will see thousands of people descending on the city and with them a vast amount of catering will be needed.
It has included seconding a member of the FSA Scotland staff to the Olympics 2012 team in London, to ensure the city council’s inspection expertise is up to scratch.
The make up of the Food Standards Agency is a confusing one. It was set up in 2000, in an effort to increase public confidence in the Government’s handling of the food chain.
In England, the responsibility for food labelling has since been transferred to the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs and nutrition to the Department of Health.
In Wales, the FSA has retained labelling but not nutrition. Only Northern Ireland and Scotland have retained the full powers and are accountable to government, but not a direct minister.
Now in Scotland the FSA is due to become a stand-alone body and a consultation is currently ongoing as to what it should look like.
A pledge has already been made by public health minister Michael Matheson that the headquarters will remain in Aberdeen – where there are currently 74 employees in addition to the 70- odd staff working in abattoirs on meat hygiene.
Milne says this new body will provide a lot of opportunities to expand the agency’s work.
He said: “There is a chance to look at areas where at the moment there is no body in Scotland responsible for. Third country exports is one area where there is no body responsible for ensuring that standards are met.
“Obviously with Scotland’s relying on exports and its image of high quality food, that is an area of potential risk. We saw that when the Russians a few years ago banned the import of whitefish from Scotland. Frankly, the Russians were right, the standards in the plants we looked at were not what they should be and that came about almost certainly because no one was responsible for maintaining those standards.
“The consultation provides a real opportunity to address these gaps and build on the Scottish model and I strongly believe there’s a real benefit to be gained from that.”