Alison Johnstone: Breaking the padlocks on our food chain

The horsemeat scandal is the latest in a long line of food scandals, and unless we radically overhaul our approach to food it will not be the last.

Sadly, these issues only hit the headlines when there’s a big national story and it’s never long before we drift, feeling powerless to change a system our of our control.

The horsemeat scandal hasn’t chiefly been about food safety but about the more basic issue of trust. How did such a widespread deception go on for so long without somebody finding out? People are questioning why food supply chains have become so complex and why a few big companies have such a stranglehold.

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Taking action to ensure good quality food reaches your table isn’t just up to watchdogs and committees. As individuals, we certainly have the power of our wallets and we should question where our food has come from and how many hands it has passed through. We can choose to shop at locally-owned outlets and make a real effort to choose and demand more local produce that does get stocked by supermarkets.

These small actions will help keep profits in the local economy, and ensure that producers receive a fair price. Our few remaining local butchers are reporting increased demand, and I hope this continues.

However, individual action will only achieve so much, and we need leadership from large institutions to really shake up the system. Last week’s news that horsemeat was found in mince supplied to an Edinburgh school has caused parents much concern.

I would be surprised if more schools, prisons and hospitals do not join them.

We need greater investment and better traceability in our publicly-bought meals. We know that primary school meals in Edinburgh are produced for just 71p per pupil. Is this level of investment to blame for the fact that take-up of school meals in Edinburgh is among the lowest in Scotland?

I have concerns about the way our schools have moved away from meals prepared in fully-functioning kitchens to a system that takes delivery of pre-prepared plastic trays that are simply heated up on arrival.

It’s difficult to have confidence when many schools are supplied by companies which describe themselves as “strategic outsourcing providers”, rather than caterers, and whose main motive is profit. The public procurement system favours cheap bids for large contracts, and cost seems always seems to trump quality when it comes to the tendering process.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Our neighbours in Denmark are streets ahead when it comes to public food provision. From nursery to high schools, to day care centres for older people, to hospitals and prisons, the vast majority of their food is fresh, locally sourced, organic and prepared on site. The food culture is inspirational and the results in terms of health and education are clear to see.

There are also great examples closer to home. East Ayrshire Council has led the way, pioneering the Soil Association’s Food for Life model, where organisations work towards bronze, silver of gold certification. Thanks to this scheme, one in ten schools in Scotland has certification and greater confidence about where food comes from.

I want to see national and local government pushing this scheme. We can watch celebrity chefs on TV until we’re blue in the face but nothing will change until we decide that we’re serious about becoming a healthy nation with a food culture to match.

For instance, football pundit Graeme Souness highlighted his disquiet at the sight of high school pupils queuing outside fast food takeaways at lunchtimes. He questioned the sense of allowing such provision near schools, given the obesity and inactivity challenges we face.

Our young people should have the knowledge and skills to prepare fresh, tasty food, but most people would agree that we’re not as able as our grandparents were to produce a healthy meal out of a few simple ingredients.

The true cost of cheap, processed food has been highlighted by the horsemeat scandal. Let’s not waste a good crisis but use this time to look afresh at what works best for our pupils and for those local food suppliers who do the right thing.

• Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian and spokeswoman on education and food.


THE horsemeat scandal hit Edinburgh on Good Friday when the city council confirmed traces had been found in beef meant for city primary schools.

The tainted batch was taken from the shared kitchen of Pirniehall and St David’s primary schools. Oxgangs, Craigroyston, Forthview and Braidburn Special School were also supplied with the same frozen foodstuff.

Another round of test results on meat seized from school canteens is due next month. The frozen beef mince at the centre of the scandal has been found to contain between one per cent and five per cent horse.

The samples were taken in late February before catering supplier 3663 instructed sub-contractor Amey to pull the product following its own positive tests on March 8.