Food Safety in 2014 – the Good, the Bad and the Politics

Looking back over the last twelve months it is possible to see several positive developments in the world of food safety. Firstly, the implications of growing levels of food fraud have now been recognised in the wake of the 2013 horsemeat in beef scandal and in the UK this has resulted in the setting up of a dedicated food crime unit within the Food Standards Agency. 2014 was also the year in which consumer awareness of the main cause of foodborne disease in the developed world, Campylobacter, grew from negligible to significant. The link between Campylobacter and raw poultry has also been firmly established in the public consciousness, creating a new source of pressure on the industry to do something about the high contamination rates that have been a feature of fresh chicken for more than a decade.

But perhaps even more important in the long-term could be the growing sense of urgency around the issue of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Several authoritative reports – from WHO and others – were published during the year warning of the consequences of allowing the development of antimicrobial drug resistance to continue unchecked. There has been much discussion of what a world without effective antimicrobial drugs would be like and it doesn’t make pleasant reading. However, while much of the attention has been on the use of antibiotics in medicine, it is vital not to overlook agriculture, where huge quantities are used as animal growth promoters and to prevent infections in intensive livestock facilities. There is now little doubt that giving antibiotics to animals that are not sick has helped in the development of resistant pathogens in the food chain and food poisoning outbreaks are already being caused by drug-resistant strains. This is a problem that was first flagged up as long ago as 1969, so it’s about time it was taken seriously.

We may have been slow to recognise these dangers, but at least action is now promised, and that is encouraging. Sadly, 2014 also brought some less welcome developments. Of most concern to my mind is the gradual erosion of food safety enforcement and testing resources, usually as a result of various governments buying in to the prevailing view that austerity is the best way out of recession. I am not qualified to comment on the economic wisdom of such a strategy, but I do know that if enforcing food safety law is left in the hands of fewer people armed with fewer resources, it will inevitably suffer.

For instance, a recent French report written by two former senior food safety officials highlights constant staff reductions that led to a 20% reduction in food safety inspections between 2009 and 2013. The report, La Politique de Sécurité des Aliments, paints a bleak picture of current food safety provision in France. Although the number of enforcement staff is to be increased by 60 in 2015, this is well below the number of full-time posts lost since 2007. Meanwhile in the UK, concerns have been expressed that the creation of the new FSA food crime unit will come at the expense of the Agency’s other food safety responsibilities and it is by no means clear that any new money will be made available to fund it.

While it is clear that the spending of public money needs to be closely controlled and there is not enough to go around, surely one of the main duties of any government is to protect its citizens from harm. If keeping the food supply safe doesn’t come under that description, then what does?