Tavish Scott: Watchdog has been asleep at wheel

Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Share this article
Have your say

AK STODDART is a notable Scottish company. They produce the finest beef and put it on dinner plates in the best of restaurants.

Earlier this week they provided the main course for the Scottish National Farmer’s Union dinner in St Andrews. I shared the delicious offering with farmers from Shetland and Orkney. They know a decent chunk of beef when they see it.

But across Europe and in the UK some beef sold to consumers is not beef at all. Why?

In 2001 UK government set up an independent body to police such things. This organisation needed to be separate from the day-to-day grip of government because the public does not necessarily believe a minister when he declares that food is safe. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was born. The powers in Scotland were devolved so that north of the Border it is able to set local priorities.

Many at the NFU gathering are wondering what the FSA has been doing. It has a multi-million pound budget. The public should know that in Scotland the FSA is responsible for food labelling and standards. It sets standards which add huge and prohibitive costs to small food processing businesses. Yet the FSA seems to have missed the most basic function that the public would expect it to undertake.

The UK government has hacked away at FSA powers in England. What used to be a one-stop shop is now split across different government agencies and quangos. Scotland has not done that. But that has not protected consumers.

What this food crisis has demonstrated is an international trade driven not by food safety but by cost. Ask yourself if it is really possible to make four beef burgers for a pound as is found on supermarket shelves? Visit your local butcher and ask the staff. Buy local and ask where the beef, pork or chicken comes from? They will know.

The Scottish Government should be spending the £1 million recently set aside for supporting the Scotch brand on generic advertising to encourage consumers to use their local butcher. Governments are too close to supermarkets and at least this food crisis could give consumers better information leading to informed choices.

But the Scottish Government should also be careful about claiming everything is just dandy north of the Border. Is the FSA in Scotland 100 per cent sure of that every meat label is correct? Is meat served in schools, hospitals and care homes what it says on the tin or the packet?

Has the Scottish FSA been meeting UK colleagues for the three weeks this crisis has now lasted?

I heard worrying suggestions that their eye has been on a different ball. They have been told to prepare for independence, without any consultation with industry.

If the Scottish Parliament has a shred of objective scrutiny left it will initiate an inquiry next week into the role of the FSA during this crisis. Consumers across Scotland deserve nothing less.

• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland