This week saw the publication of a report by the UK Parliamentary Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the horsemeat scandal that affected much of Europe earlier this year. The MPs who make up the Committee have clearly looked at the affair in detail and are not impressed by some aspects of the UK response to it. They are particularly concerned that no one has yet been prosecuted for the adulteration of beef with horsemeat and disillusioned with the slow pace of the investigation.
I’m not sure that these complaints are entirely justified. The lack of prosecutions in the UK is probably a consequence of there being no evidence that any of the businesses involved did anything wrong. The British food industry is more victim than villain in this instance. The same is probably true of many of the food manufacturers affected in other countries. The adulteration was almost certainly perpetrated by unscrupulous traders and middlemen somewhere along what the MPs acknowledge is an extremely complex international supply chain. That complexity is one reason why the investigation seems to be so slow. I’m confident that the offenders will eventually be brought to book, but it will take time. There is no point in rushing to prosecute merely to help restore public confidence in the meat industry. All that will do is create scapegoats, while making it more likely that the real culprits escape justice.
On the other hand, the Committee also raises concerns about the lack of trained public analysts and laboratories in the UK, a real concern that needs urgent action. Public analysts are highly skilled professionals who have to complete an extensive training period before they are qualified to take their position in the frontline of protecting consumers. There are now 24 public analysts laboratories in the UK, some in the public sector, some privately owned and operated, but not so long ago there were at least twice that number. Budgets for food testing have been progressively squeezed by successive governments since the 1970s, so that the capacity to react to major contamination incidents is now much smaller than it was. The Committee report even suggests that food samples may have to be sent abroad for testing – a ridiculous state of affairs in a country that more or less invented modern food standards and regulation more than 150 years ago.