Consumers and suppliers in the production chain will welcome the UK Government’s launch (4 June) of a review into the food supply system in the UK: but will anything change? It will examine weaknesses in food supply networks which might affect food safety and public health. UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson pressed the obvious political and consumer buttons, insisting that consumers have the right to know that what they are eating contains what they are told, but will any fresh report just lead to the imposition of more regulation? Will it simply be a further burden on the already compliant suppliers nearer the consumer end of the chain without proving a deterrent to the less scrupulous (or downright fraudulent) in the "murky middle"?
Consumers have of course a right to know the provenance of the food they buy – no-one would suggest otherwise. Stronger though than that, for many, is the need for the food industry – producers and retailers alike – to deliver low prices for consumer staples such as family food. Provenance for most consumers is not about Gressingham Duck or Aberdeen Angus beef – it is about the type of meat in the lasagne, and the impact on availability and price of nutritious basic ingredients and, in time-poor families with uneven meal patterns, reliability of processed ready meals. The challenge but also opportunity for the retailer will be securing a traceable supply chain structure which can still deliver consumer staples free from adulteration, infiltration or substitution of inferior product, at an affordable cost. Neither Government nor the public will want to see food price inflation resulting from increased regulation, so the focus must be on identifying cost effective as well as risk effective responses.
The cost impact of any recommendation must therefore be as carefully considered as the changes themselves. Unless any new regulatory regime can effectively eliminate fraudulent and/or opportunistic practices (which would be remarkable), one consequence of a liberal trade market like the EU is that generic meat may come from countries of multiple origin and can and will continue to be brokered and traded as a commodity, with attendant risks.
One option, of course, would be to let the buyer choose (or decline) horsemeat content – provided it is clearly sold as such. There will be few votes in that, however, as it remains an almost uniquely British taboo and does not prevent mis-selling or adulteration.
The Food Standards Agency's remit has, since 2010, been restricted to (and focussed on) food safety incidents, including misleading labelling and food fraud with possible food safety implications. The horsemeat scandal proved to be more a consumer trust issue than a product safety issue (although had equine hormone or other adulterant been established it might have been different). Should the FSA have increased powers, or extend the existing safety-focussed alerts to non-safety but industry critical supply chain issues? Or can the industry be relied on to manage such issues and responses out of self-interest? The FSA's interim review findings just published (also on 4 June) highlight the need for improved intelligence and analysis across the sector; the need for the FSA to strengthen its Major Incident Plan; improved clarity of the role of Government Departments in large/complex incidents; and a review of FSA powers. If the industry can demonstrate to the FSA that collaboration and self-regulation was and is more effective than enhanced powers, and can avoid the compliance burden which would follow, it may be possible to manage both cost and risk in the supply chain. Confidence is always a delicate flower, and consumer confidence in supply chain integrity will remain fragile without reassurance that the industry can deliver processed meats of known provenance, whether because or regardless of any new regulatory scheme.