The UK government has promised action on food laboratories and supply chain audits following the publication of a long-awaited report assessing food integrity.
Professor Chris Elliott from Queen's University Belfast, made eight recommendations including putting consumers first, zero tolerance of food fraud, ensuring laboratory services and recognising the value of audits.
Elliott was asked by the secretaries of state for Defra and Health to carry out the review in light of the horsemeat fraud in 2013.
Unannounced audits and lab resources
Elliott said the move towards modular and unannounced audits will help and highlighted that Public Analyst laboratories are in a fragile position.
He said the government should: “Encourage industry to reduce burdens on businesses by carrying out fewer, but more effective audits and by replacing announced audits with more comprehensive unannounced audits.
“A resilient laboratory service using standardised, established approaches is a key part of the multi-agency collaboration needed to prevent food crime.”
Responding to the findings , the government said it would ensure that the country has a network of food analytical laboratories capable of testing for food authenticity.
It added it would encourage industry’s efforts for a robust and effective supply chain audit system that does not just rely on paper audit trails.
The findings follow the interim report published in December 2013 which set out what should be done to address weaknesses in the system. Publication comes after allegations it was delayed or attempted to be watered-down.
Food crime unit
Elliott also said that a food crime unit is urgently needed to protect the food industry and consumers from criminal activity.
He added that it would repay investment by protecting the majority of businesses who provide safe and authentic food for UK consumers.
“The role of food crime prevention must be considered one of the priorities of a more robust and confident Food Standards Agency,” said Elliott.
“The agency will need to be more proactive in deterring and investigating food crime and to show leadership as it works in partnership with local authorities.”
Responding, the government said it will deliver the first stage of the unit with a progress review and future direction after two years.
“The FSA has initiated setting up the Unit and it will be operational by the end of 2014. During the first phase the Unit will focus on building the intelligence and evidence picture of the risks and the nature of food fraud and food crime in the UK.”
It added that the unitwill be supported by law enforcement agencies, the National Fraud Investigation Bureau and the National Trading Standards Board.
Elliott said industry focus on developing shorter supply chains and sourcing locally produced foods in long term partnerships is of importance in having a more resilient, higher integrity food system.
However we cannot escape the need to actively participate in global food supply systems and must develop a new mentality when sourcing from sometimes highly complex international markets.
Elizabeth Truss, Environment Secretary, said when a shopper picks something up from a supermarket shelf it should be exactly what it says on the label.
“As well as keeping up confidence here, we need to protect the great reputation of our food abroad. We’ve been opening up even more export markets, which will grow our economy, provide jobs, and support the government’s long-term economic plan.”
Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said it was ‘only right’ that the review was accepted and recognised that consumers must be put first to restore trust in the food industry.
“It’s in the interests of responsible food businesses, as well as consumers, to make sure there are effective controls in place and a zero tolerance approach to food crime,” he said.
”We now want the government to quickly implement all of the recommendations so consumers can be confident in the food they buy.”
Meurig Raymond, National Farmers Union president, said the scandal has underlined the importance of a short, traceable supply chain.
“Although we approve of plans to set up a new system of authenticity, we await with interest on details as to how that will be implemented. We would not want added costs passed on to our farmers, who have not been implicated in any way during this scandal.
“In the meantime, we would urge consumers to look out for the Red Tractor logo to be absolutely sure of where their food comes from and of the standards it has been produced to.”