Retail: Supermarkets to serve food safety

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The Independent Online
The creation of a Food Safety Agency may reassure the public but will have only a small part to play in ensuring the food on our tables is safe, according to research by the Economic and Social Research Council which says that standards of food quality are increasingly driven by the big five of grocery retailing.

Sainsbury, Tesco, Safeway, Gateway/Somerfield and Asda have 67 per cent of the packaged grocery market and, says the report, "are the new masters of the food system". With Marks & Spencer it has been the supermarkets who have developed quality definitions for food, hygiene and hazard systems which go well beyond existing safety and hygiene laws. The grocers also regulate their own food supply chains.

The authors reveal that although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has given the go-ahead to sales of irradiated food, sales in the UK are small because supermarkets won't touch it because they think their customers won't buy it. The work of environmental health officers and trading standards officers has also changed because of the superleague of grocers. Now officers do not regulate the stores so much as test their management systems. The authors conclude that the Food Safety Agency cannot compete with the supermarkets but should make it its priority to oversee the independent sector of the grocery trade and encourage public understanding of food hygiene.