Thursday, 18 July 2013

Buy local to avoid problems in the food chain

One of my roles in parliament is on the select committee for the environment, food and rural affairs and this week we published a report into lessons to be learned from the scandal of horse meat being found in beef products.

The staggering thing about the contaminated meat scandal is that with all the "traceability" procedures we have and the "cattle passports" farmers have to fill out, such an audacious fraud was able to be committed.

The first thing we need to ask is why the Food Standards Agency failed to pick this problem up sooner and why, once it had been discovered, their response was slow. The Food Standards Agency was set up in the wake of the BSE scandal twenty years ago and was supposed to focus primarily on the safety of our food. However, over the last decade, there has been a drift in its mission. It has spent too much time acting as a sort of health police, lecturing people on how much salt and sugar is in the products they eat and not enough time dealing with issues around food safety and actual standards.

The large supermarket retailers have also placed far too much faith in the paperwork that comes with consignments of meat. Traders and middle men in the supply chain buy and sell different consignments in a game of pass the parcel which has made the supply chain too long and complicated. As it turned out, some of these supermarkets and food processors were actually buying horse meat from abattoirs in southern Europe that had been fraudulently passed off as beef.

In future, we need the Food Standards Agency to focus on its core task and to start making spot checks on the DNA of meat products to try to protect the system against fraud. Secondly, the big retailers should not rely just on the paperwork. We need to cut some of the middle men out of the food chain and try to get to a situation where the retailer or processor actually knows the farmer where the beef they have bought comes from and we should not allow them to rely on a bit of paperwork in their defence when something goes wrong.

Finally, consumers have a role to play by taking more interest in where their food comes from and buying locally wherever possible. There has already been a significant trend in recent years towards people sourcing their food from local farmers and butchers and it's one that should continue. If we can get to a situation where produce is grown and cattle are reared closer to the communities that consume them, we wouldn't have to have such convoluted but ultimately unreliable bureaucracy in the food chain.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.