The horse meat scandal exposed weaknesses in controlling the food supply chain, according to a UK watchdog.
It also revealed a gap between citizens’ expectations of the controls over the authenticity of their food, and the effectiveness of those controls.
The incident showed the need to strengthen horizon scanning and food intelligence analysis for potential risks and to model the economic and financial incentives for fraud.
A split in responsibilities between the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Department of Health in 2010 led to confusion about each sides role in responding to the food authenticity crisis.
Sharing of info criticised
The split of responsibilities weakened intelligence sharing, said the National Audit Office (NAO) report.
47 positive results out of 32,404 tested for horse meat/DNA have been submitted by industry to the FSA since 15 February 2013.
The incident involved a food processor in France, its subsidiary in Luxembourg, a subcontractor in Cyprus, a meat trader in the Netherlands, abattoirs in Romania, and food businesses in the UK and across Europe selling the end products.
One example in the report is of an analysis of a pizza, carried out for FSA Ireland, found it was made from 35 ingredients that passed through 60 countries, on five different continents.
Richard Lloyd, Which? executive director, said: “Our research shows a third of people say they are buying less meat following the horsemeat scandal so there’s still a way to go to restore consumer confidence in the food industry.
“The scandal exposed a web of confusion, which is why we have been calling for the government to move responsibilities for labelling and standards back to the FSA,” said Lloyd from the UK watchdog.
“We support the NAO’s recommendation that the split of responsibilities needs to be re-considered and that intelligence gathering needs to improve so that consumers can have greater assurance over what they are buying.”
Samples tested decline
The number of food samples tested for risks to safety or authenticity by official control laboratories in England has reduced by a quarter since 2009-10 and laboratories hosting public analysts have gone down from 40 to 29.
NAO added that four out of 13 labs have closed in the last two years.
The UK authorities had not tested for possible horsemeat adulteration since 2003 when no significant problem was found.
Local authorities reported 1,380 cases of food fraud in 2012 – up by two-thirds since 2010.
In 2012, a national database on the results of food sampling showed that of 833 samples taken to authenticate the type of meat, one in six failed because of the presence of a different species (not horse), for 2010 and 2011, the proportion failing was one in ten.
Food Safety Authority of Ireland decided, in November 2012, to test for adulteration of beef products as they were concerned that while there had been a substantial rise in beef prices, this was not reflected in retail prices.
They found that beef products may have been adulterated with horsemeat since at least April 2012, and they believe it is likely to have been present for longer.
Meat hygiene inspections cost the FSA $26.7m in 2011-12 at slaughterhouses, cutting plants and primary producers.