Stephen Jardine: FSA needs to step up to the plate

WHEN the editor asked me to write this column, I expected it to be about fine dining and the pastoral reflections of ruddy-faced farmers. Instead, one year on, here comes my fourth column on the horsemeat scandal.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but I make no apologies for revisiting the subject as it’s a national scandal that shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, things seem to be getting worse. Three months after horsemeat was first found in the food chain, no-one has yet been charged and the Food Standards Agency investigation has yet to reach any conclusion.

From the very beginning, the FSA’s performance has been woeful. Remember, it was Irish food inspectors who blew the whistle on the scandal. Since that day, the FSA has been playing catch-up – and failing miserably.

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Initially, it reassured consumers that there was no risk to human health. That confidence seemed odd when the horsemeat had no history or traceability, but it did the trick for retailers. A few days ago a Kantar study revealed consumer fears had eased, with the proportion of shoppers saying that they would change their eating habits dropping below 50 per cent.

Releasing the data, research spokesman Lloyd Burdett said: “We are told horsemeat poses no health risks for consumers, but if that situation was to change, then we would expect to see a bigger, long-term impact on consumer attitudes and behaviour.”

Just 48 hours later, Asda announced it was withdrawing sales of Smart Price Corned Beef after finding traces of a horse tranquilliser. It is banned from the human food chain, but the FSA’s feeble response this week has been to point out the risk to human health is “very low”.

To add to this week’s woes, the authorities have discovered there is no paperwork to verify the origin of 50,000 tonnes of red meat supplied by Dutch companies. The FSA needs to get a grip on this crisis by providing strong leadership and speeding up it’s investigation. It has introduced a raft of testing, but that is pointless if it simply keeps uncovering horsemeat. Instead, the emphasis needs to be on stopping a recurrence.

That means swift prosecution and jail for those who cheat consumers by switching beef for cheaper horsemeat and punitive fines for supermarkets who then sell those products. Ignorance is no excuse.

Last year Asda made profits of 
£857 million. Like the other big names, it did that by squeezing prices down to beat the competition for market share. To satisfy the supermarkets pursuit of cheap food, corners have been cut.

Instead of promising to change their ways, the supermarkets should just concentrate on cutting crazy supply chains so they know where the food they sell actually comes from.