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


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.

Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Noddy Holder must be glad he wrote 'Merry Xmas Everybody' as he'll earn £800,000 this year from royalties.  

Noddy Holder: A true rock ’n’ roll hero, and a role model for sensible people everywhere

Rosie Millard
Ian Paisley used to pick out journalists in his congregation  

The Only Way is Ethics: Ian Paisley is rightly remembered for his intransigence

Will Gore
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam