Editorial: The market needs watching

Food labelling cannot be left to the supermarkets and their suppliers

Sunday 17 February 2013 01:00
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The opinion poll we report on today finds that British people blame food companies rather than the Government for the horsemeat scandal. It may be that respondents answered the question somewhat literally, in that the direct responsibility for horse labelled as beef ending up on supermarket shelves lies with the companies. Yet it is surely to the Government that we must look to make sure that the testing regime can be trusted.

That is why we are surprised that 44 per cent of the public think that "the Government has responded well to the findings of horsemeat in ready meals", while only 30 per cent disagree. In our supposedly anti-political age, in which elected representatives are held in lower esteem than estate agents, this amounts to a full-throated endorsement of Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

We thought that consumers were entitled to assume that meat – and indeed all food – was subject to random spot checks to confirm that it was what it said it was. Yet the present crisis began only because of a tip-off to the authorities in Ireland. It turns out that for decades the policy there, and in this country, has been to test food only for public health reasons, or if information is received that it is suspect. This information does not include, for example, ready meals selling at prices that might be below cost if they contained beef at market prices; or rises in imports of horsemeat (normally used only in pet food in this country). And, as The Independent on Sunday reported last week, horsemeat, if it contains "bute", an equine painkiller, can present a danger to human health.

There are two other parties who have been accused of being responsible for the scandal who should be exonerated, however. The first is the European Union. It has been claimed that, since the European Food Safety Agency was set up in 2002, national governments have been deprived of the power to regulate food testing. This is not the case.

On the contrary, the EU could guarantee higher standards. As we report today, ministers have been forced by this furore to abandon their plan to opt out of new EU regulations requiring retailers to state exactly what parts of an animal are in their mincemeat. That is a good thing, too, but it does not answer the problem of enforcement.

The second innocent party is the consumer. It has been fashionable to say in recent weeks that people are too incurious, or that food is too cheap, and: "What do people expect at those prices?" That is not the point. There has always been competitive pressure to sell food more cheaply. Consumers, even those who can afford expensive butchers, have no way of knowing at first hand where their meat comes from; that is why we need government regulation to check it for us.

Of course, food suppliers should not make false claims. And it is interesting that supermarkets have had to take emergency action to provide their own assurances to their customers. But food labelling cannot be left to the supermarkets and their suppliers – the short-term pressure of a public relations disaster will ease off soon enough.

If the testing regime is lax, as it has been proved to be, then, while we should condemn those who take advantage of it, we should recognise that it is inevitable that such advantage will be taken, and we should reserve our real anger for the ministry that allowed it to happen. It is Mr Paterson, above all, who has questions to answer.

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