Budget cuts are leading to fewer food inspections but food safety should not be compromised, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Andrew Rhodes, FSA chief operating officer, told Food Manufacture’s Food Safety Conference yesterday (October 16) that: “Falling resources should not automatically mean more [risk] exposure for consumers.”
“There are definitely pressures on the public sector and public services. There is reduction in the number of enforcement visits and a reduction in the number of sampling. But fewer samples being taken doesn’t mean fewer tests being carried out,” he said.
Rhodes conceded that fewer inspections may make detection more difficult. “It does possibly mean the risk of detection might be lower. But, if we are sharing our intelligence properly and we rethink our approaches and test for the right things in the right way, then we have a very strong possibility of finding the problems that are out there.”
'Sharing intelligence is king'
Part of the FSA’s role was to help food businesses identify looming threats and to build a picture of those threats. “There is a certain amount of working together that needs to happen and the sharing of intelligence is king. This is how we would spot things like horsemeat.”
Local authorities were faced with tough decisions about food inspection budgets – particularly in England, he added.
While the horsemeat crisis was a case of food fraud, not a challenge to food safety, in future an authenticity problem could lead to a safety problem, he said.
Meat products containing horsemeat passed a range of full safety tests before the crisis but were not subject to species identification tests. “1% of all processed meat was found to be contaminated with horsemeat. That is not acceptable but it is considerably lower than in other European countries,” said Rhodes.
Meanwhile, Sue Davies, chief policy adviser Which?, said tougher penalities were needed for those who broke food labelling laws. Also, the financial penalty should be in proportion to the scale of the violation.
'Should be scrapped'
“Proposals to decriminalise labelling laws from DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and the FSA send out totally the wrong message and should be scrapped,” said Davies.
Country of origin labelling should be extended to cover the meat in meat products, she continued. “Two-thirds of people [surveyed by Which?] want that information because they think it is important.”
Tony Hines, head of food security and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research, repeated his advice to food manufacturers to: think like a criminal in order to beat food fraud.
“Stop being a food technologist, safety specialist, quality manager or supply chain specialist and think like a criminal,” said Hines.
“Managers should ask: what do we buy a lot of and could be subject to bulking or diluting to a degree that will not impact safety, the sensory qualities of the product? What will not change it visually or physically, is inexpensive and not routinely tested?”
Main sponsors of the conference were Interek, Ishida and Alchemy.
Associated sponsors were NSF, Safefood 360, Softrace and the Institute of Food Research.
Watch out for more food safety news and views, plus exclusive video interviews with Rhodes, Davies and others, on FoodManufacture.co.uk next week.
Rhodes took part in Food Manufacture's free, one-hour horsemeat webinar , dedicated to learning the lessons of the crisis, earlier this year.