Consumers are fed up with being fed Whitehall rubbish

A revolution is taking place that will end for ever the food producers' stranglehold on the Ministry of Agriculture
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The Independent Online
Forget about the party politics for a moment. Douglas Hogg's weekly torment at the dispatch box, the relentless revelations of the secretiveness and incompetence at the Ministry of Agriculture, the nightly and gruesomely unromantic television images of excrement encrusted cows, reflect something much bigger: an irreversible change in culture. The discovery of Bill Swann's report on the filthy condition of the country's abattoirs was something much more important that an embarrassment for a moribund Government. It may not be too millennial to say we are now seeing, in at least one segment of national life, the beginning a transition from an age of producerism to an age of consumerism.

It is apt to say that Swann's report was discovered over the dead body of the Ministry of Agriculture. It's all over for Maff, at least in its present form. It is pointless to rant on about the culture inbred in the only department to sponsor a single industry, or network of industries. In which civil servants and veterinary scientists pass as a matter of course to and from jobs in the department and the companies they regulate. In which a minister can say, without irony, as Lord Lucas, agriculture spokesman in the Lords did on Wednesday, that on food safety it proceeds on the basis of co-operation with the industry. It did not, he added, "take a big stick to it and close down everything that was unsatisfactory. Had we done so we would have closed down two thirds of the industry on day one." There is yet to be a single prosecution for hygiene breaches of the kind so brutally exposed by the Swann report. And, as Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association, said: "This is excrement and urine in your hamburger we're talking about." Nor is this the lament of a New Age foodie: remember, 20 people have died of E coli in Lanarkshire.

The Meat Hygiene Service, the agency which is at the heart of Hogg's travails, has had a short and unhappy history. The Commons Standing Committee records of the debate when it was set up in April 1995 already read like something from a bygone age. The decision to remove the job of abattoir regulation from local authorities and hand it to a nationwide agency was opposed by Labour. But this was mainly over the one issue which dominated the proceedings of the committee: the costs to industry that would accrue from the new service. To his credit, Labour's Eddie O' Hara warned prophetically of the danger under the new system of "cross-contamination and consequent food poisoning". He pointed out that it had been the local authorities who had been most concerned about the possible - but at the time officially dismissed - risks of BSE. But even his speech was largely taken up with the anger of meat wholesalers who feared being driven out of business by the excessive costs they would have to pay to be inspected. That couldn't happen now.

What's more, the service had a rather unpromising start. Even most of the experts have forgotten that its first head of operations, Philip Corrigan, a vet with an international academic reputation, was found to have left his native Australia under a bit of a cloud - namely six disciplinary charges under the Australian Public Services Act, including a complaint alleging that he had solicited a grant from the Australian Cold Storage Association to finance a trip to an international conference in Berlin. He left, but only after his troubles in Australia had been unearthed by the Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Paul Tyler and The Independent. Small beer no doubt, but the point is that the Ministry of Agriculture admitted they knew that Mr Corrigan had had a problem in Australia when they appointed him. An insouciance which surely speaks volumes about the incestuous relationship the ministry expects its officials to enjoy with the industries they are supposed to monitor.

This is nicely illustrated, as it happens, by a glossy publication called Functions of the Meat Hygiene Service, which the ministry helpfully issued on Wednesday. Given the department's instincts for suppression, it was rather surprising that it was put out at all. For it could hardly be a more graphic illustration of what is wrong. There are lots of pictures of earnest-looking folk in spotless white coats examining carcasses in gleaming establishments of the sort Swann, for one, would not recognise. In a list of its "performance targets", "applying hygiene requirements" comes seventh out of nine, behind three on financial performance, one on BSE, and one on animal welfare. But the best bits are the glowing encomia - dropped into the main text - from the big beasts of the food producer jungle: the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers is enraptured with the "positive and responsive" way the service has met "recent demands". From whom it does not say. And then the International Meat Traders' Association is thrilled with the "excellent service and total co-operation" it has received from the chief executive and all MHS staff.

What would reinforce any dwindling reputation the MHS still has, of course, would be if the quote had said: "The MHS and its chief executive have been an utter pain in the neck, snooping at everything we do, enforcing all sorts of footling restrictions and being paranoid about the odd cow with diarrhoea."

It's a safeish bet that this will be the last report of its kind from the MHS. It may be that Maff will limp on, as Labour currently intends, with another agency, whether answerable to the Department of Health or not, taking care of food safety. There is no reason why Maff's green functions should not be hived off to Environment, and its European subsidy negotiations to the DTI (a department crowded with ministers with too little to do). Some food standards campaigners believe it should be reformed wholesale rather than dismembered. But others, including Sheila McKechnie, believe it should be abolished if only to eliminate the corrosive culture of a department which saw its role as protecting not just farmers but meat wholesalers, renderers, abattoir operators and the whole panoply of industries now caught in the headlights.

This change will be painfully slow. There may be more revelations to come. The intimidation of meat inspectors at abattoirs won't stop overnight. The problems of the poultry industry have so far escaped attention. But something has snapped. It no longer seems possible that Edwina Currie could face the lynch mob which ended her ministerial career over salmonella. It no longer seems possible that Mrs Thatcher could say, as she once did when asked whether Maff had outlived it's usefulness: "You don't see: farmers are consumers too." The stranglehold the big producers have had over those who buy and sell their food is loosening daily. And it won't be coming back.