'Knowledge gap' in horsemeat crisis

Government and industry should make urgent efforts to "fill the knowledge gap" of the extent of any criminal activity within the UK food supply network, a report into the horsemeat crisis has recommended.

Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University Belfast, said the UK has some of the highest standards of food safety in the world, but the scandal "clearly showed criminal activity in the global food chain".

In the first part of his independent review into how the safety and authenticity of food supplies in the UK can be protected, he said: "The horsemeat crisis clearly showed criminal activity in the global food chain and while the next stage of my review will gather more evidence on this, it is right that measures are in place to further protect consumers.

"The food industry and the Government are already striving to achieve this."

And he recommended that: "Data collection and well-structured surveys should be considered as a matter of urgency, by both Government and industry, to fill the knowledge gap of the extent of any criminal activity within the UK food supply network."

Prof Elliott was asked by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health (DH) to look at what can be done to ensure that the food being bought and eaten by consumers in the UK "is what it says it is".

He called for the Food Authenticity Programme, which takes the lead in supporting research into food authenticity testing, and policy over compositional labelling, to return from Defra to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

But he said the FSA should work more closely with Defra and the DH on an up-to-date crisis management plan to make sure their respective roles are clear in the event of a major incident.

A specialist "food crime unit" should be hosted by the FSA and both industry and Government should create "intelligence hubs" to gather and analyse information about food crime, he recommends.

He said the FSA should remain a non-ministerial department, but changes to its governance arrangements were necessary "to make it a more robust organisation".

The recommendations also say that all parties who operate and manage the food chain "must put consumers first over all other aims", adding that: "To this end, contamination and adulteration of food, along with making false claims relating to food products, must be made as difficult as possible to commit.

"Food safety and food crime prevention must be considered the primary objectives."

He called for the FSA and the DH to launch a project to explore the feasibility of a shared public laboratory service for the food authenticity testing currently undertaken in local authority-owned labs.

And he said the auditing of food businesses by Government and industry, particularly those deemed to be high risk, "must be more focused on detecting fraud", with traders and brokers subject to the same scrutiny.

The horsemeat scandal first began to unfold in January when it emerged that frozen burgers supplied to several supermarkets including Tesco contained horse DNA.

Investigations found other beef products sold by retailers including lasagne and spaghetti bolognese were contaminated, while meals in schools and hospitals had to be withdrawn after it was found they contained horsemeat.

Asda reported a test on its Smart Price corned beef had tested positive for very low levels of horse drug phenylbutazone, or bute, which is banned from the human food chain.

Officials said horse meat containing bute at very low levels presents a very low risk to human health.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "I am pleased that Professor Elliott's interim review recognises that there are good systems in place to ensure UK consumers have access to some of the safest food in the world. We want to keep it that way.

"It is appalling that anyone was able to defraud the public by passing off horsemeat as beef. That is why I commissioned an urgent review into the integrity of our food network.

"The UK food industry already has robust procedures to ensure they deliver high quality food to consumers and food businesses have a legal duty to uphold the integrity of food they sell. It is rightly highly regarded across the world and we must not let anything undermine this or the confidence of consumers in the integrity of their food.

"We will continue to work closely with the food industry, enforcement agencies and across local and central Government to improve intelligence on food fraud and our response to it."

The FSA said in a statement: "The report recognises the high standards of food safety in the UK food industry. However, the need for a more co-ordinated and proactive approach to food crime is the principal theme of the report and Professor Elliott is right to highlight that there is a role for central government, local authorities and the food industry to play in this area.

"We know from the horse meat incident that food supply chains are complex and international. We support the European Commission in its work to establish a European Union food fraud unit, to which the FSA has seconded staff, so we are better able to protect consumers from fraud along the whole food chain across the whole of Europe.

"The FSA is already working with Defra and local authorities to detect and deter food fraud. For example, we are carrying out a study to test that products which are labelled from the UK are in fact from the UK, we have introduced unannounced inspections of meat-cutting plants and we have increased to £2 million the funding to local authorities to support their own testing programmes.

"We look forward to the discussion on the interim report's recommendations over the coming weeks."

Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director general Melanie Leech said: "It's clear from the interim findings published today that UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world. Professor Elliott's recommendations provide industry with a solid platform from which to build a joint strategy with government and enforcement bodies to combat food fraud.

"We have developed a plan of action to help manufacturers protect their business and customers. Building on FDF's sustainable sourcing work we have produced a best practice guide, Food Authenticity: Five steps to help protect your business from food fraud, focused on the robustness, resilience and sustainability of supply chains.

"Additionally through our network of committees and working groups we are constantly engaged with members on incident prevention and horizon scanning for emerging issues. Furthermore we continue to maintain an open dialogue with UK and European regulators to ensure that manufacturers can access relevant information with regard to threats to the authenticity of food supply."

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