It was the image of a reluctant four-year-old girl being fed a beefburger by her overenthusiastic dad, the hapless agriculture minister John Gummer, that defined the BSE scandal in the 1990s. His clumsy attempt to reassure a sceptical nation about the safety of beef backfired spectacularly when the government was eventually forced to admit what scientists had long warned – that the food supply was contaminated.
The BSE scandal and the inquiry it spawned marked a watershed. The spectre of the fatal brain disease CJD spread by BSE-infected meat almost destroyed the beef industry, and led to the splitting of the Ministry of Agriculture with the intention of putting clear blue water between food producers – the farmers – and consumers. Thus was the Food Standards Agency born.
How low its profile has since sunk. We thought we knew what was in our food; we were wrong. There may be no risk to health – or so we are assured – from the latest revelations about horse meat found in ready meals, burgers and other processed foods – even though in some cases it constituted as much as 100 per cent of products labelled "beef".
But that is not the point. The measures put in place to guarantee the integrity of the food supply post-BSE were designed to bolster public trust. That trust is now blown apart, sacrificed by an industry that has put profit before safety. It will not be simple to rebuild.
One innovation following BSE was the requirement that every cow in the UK, whether male or female, dairy or beef, should have its own passport, allowing its parentage and movements throughout its life to be traced. The aim was to prevent "rogue" animals carrying potential infections entering the country undetected.
In the light of this week's revelations, that now looks like shutting the stable door while leaving the farm gate wide open. It is not rogue cattle entering the UK we need to fear but rogue consignments of meat imported from distant nations with labels that do not describe accurately what they are.
There is a simple principle that underpins public trust in the food supply. It is that what is on the label must represent correctly what is in the product. That applies whatever its cost or nature. We thought, after BSE, that we had a system in which the source of our food could be traced. But with the creation by the giant food conglomerates of a multitude of subsidiary companies and outsourced contracts, we have lost that traceability.
When the truth is uncovered about exactly what happened and how, we will have a clearer idea of what remedial action is needed. But the deception we already know about surely amounts to fraud, so providing grounds for prosecution. And when it is time for the reckoning, the force of the law must not be applied only to the little guys and the middle men. The food giants responsible for buying in these substandard and potentially dangerous products must face legal redress, too.
This episode also contains important lessons for the Coalition, which has hitherto adopted a softly-softly approach to negotiations with the food industry over urgently needed changes in the nation's diet. Ministers have defended their preference for voluntary agreements – over traffic-light labelling and cuts in sugar content of fizzy drinks – on the grounds that they achieve more than the blunt instrument of the law. Health groups have protested that the agreements promise more than they deliver and the industry is effectively unchecked. The horse‑meat saga should persuade ministers to think again, hard.