Horsemeat: Regulation doesn’t taste so bad now, does it?

The question is no longer over the FSA’s existence but over whether it is powerful enough

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In theory, everyone loathes regulation, until some calamity arises when everyone calls for tougher regulations and curses those responsible for not intervening more intensively.

To put it more colloquially, virtually everyone despises or feels threatened by the so-called nanny state until they feel very vulnerable, at which point they demand a controlling nanny.

The sequence of contradictory passions applies with a special, darkly comical intensity in relation to the anger over horse meat. When he was leader of the opposition, David Cameron proposed a bonfire of the quangos, including the Food Standards Agency. Quite a lot of newspapers cheered him on. Cameron had a case with some of the non-elected bodies he sought to remove, but many of them act as a protective barrier between consumers and those that deliver various services and goods with erratic standards. Now the urgent question is whether the FSA is powerful enough, and not whether it should be abolished altogether.

Early last night in a statement to the Commons, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, confirmed that the FSA was investigating what had happened at virtually every stage of the chain. Truthfully and yet revealingly, Paterson stressed the independence of the FSA and told MPs it is the quango that “leads the operational response”. In the midst of a crisis, ministers wary of regulation are grateful to hide behind the protective shield of the regulator. Not surprisingly, his statement was studded with references to the FSA.

Horse meat can be exported from Britain and subsequently imported back in a food chain that is as busy and global as the money markets. We are still adapting to the daunting realisation that if a bank goes bust in the US or, indeed, in Greece virtually every economy in the world heads to the edge of a cliff. Now an abattoir in Bucharest might be the source of dodgy horse meat. After the global financial crisis in 2008, we are now living through a global meat crisis. The UK Government cannot regulate what happens in Romania, nor in Luxembourg or other countries where the chain seems to have been particularly active. Yesterday, Paterson also pointed out that parts of the regulatory framework are the responsibility of the European Union. He looks for cooperation with other countries, as ministers are bound to do when contemplating regulatory frameworks for the banks.

 That does not mean individual governments are powerless, as they are not in relation to the banks. The intimidating scale of the challenge is not an excuse for governments to lapse into ideological inactivity. Almost certainly, the sequence of events is not simply a story of wholly innocent companies not knowing what was happening in the food chain. Horse meat is cheaper than alternatives. Cheaper meat is good business in a market that is lightly regulated. Fearful of accusations about being part of a nanny state, the current Government, and indeed the previous Labour administration, expressed a faith in voluntary guidance about what food companies and supermarkets were obliged to do. Voluntary rules on labelling, information and standards are part of a fashionable belief in “nudging” companies towards good behaviour. Not surprisingly, lulling customers into buying cheaply produced, unhealthy food has triumphed over providing information that might deter shoppers from making their deadly purchases. Even if it emerges that international criminality is the cause of this particular crisis, the emergence of horse meat in lasagnes is part of a culture in which labelling of ingredients is often poorly projected and cheap meat is of poor quality.

Predictably, with the prospect of eating poisoned horse there is a loud cry for the nanny state to get nannying a bit more effectively. Paterson has to answer questions in the media and in the Commons, whereas if he had demanded higher standards before the crisis he would have been accused of being part of a bossy governing class. It would be much healthier for a more balanced view across politics and the media of the benefits and drawbacks of regulation in general rather than making these leaps from one extreme to the other when a crisis erupts. When is regulation necessary and in what form? Where does it work and when does it become hopelessly stifling, and why? With a neat symmetry, Paterson made his statement in the Commons last night after the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, outlined his plans for financing social care. Almost certainly his policy will prove to be only a start but will need to be accompanied by greater regulation of homes for the elderly in order to ensure uniform high standards of care. The despised regulator can be an ally of consumers and users of services that are currently governed with a degree of anarchy. 

Personally, as a vegetarian, I am baffled as to why carnivores are so worked up about consuming horse when they enjoy knocking back a cow or two. Why a sheep or cow and not a cat or a horse? It is all a mystery to me, but I am certain that if meat eaters are so bothered then they need to be protected by much tougher laws as part of a culture that finds low standards intolerable. A nudge from ministers sends out a signal that the reckless in the food chain, at whatever part of the global sequence, can get away with it. Even the most ardent libertarian sometimes needs the nanny state to come to the rescue.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

Twitter: @steverichards14

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