Government 'missed horsemeat risk'
T he Government must remove the confusion that marred the response to the horsemeat contamination crisis and improve its understanding of potential food fraud, according to a report.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said the Government failed to identify the possibility of adulteration of beef products with horsemeat, despite indications of heightened risk.
And it found that while arrangements for identifying and testing for risks to food safety were "relatively mature and effective", similar arrangements for the authenticity of food were not.
According to the report, a split in responsibilities between the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Whitehall in 2010 has led to confusion about the role of the FSA and Defra in responding to food authenticity incidents.
An FSA review has already found that some of its staff and local authorities were confused about why the agency was taking the lead in investigating the incident during the early stages of the horsemeat incident.
The NAO said local authorities had reported that they remained unclear about who to contact regarding certain areas of food policy.
The NAO report said local authorities reported 1,380 cases of food fraud in 2012 - up by two thirds since 2010.
And it said the Government recognised that it needs to address weaknesses in its intelligence gathering and sharing and its understanding of opportunities for fraud throughout the modern food chain.
Furthermore, it said the FSA "does not have a complete picture" of all public testing, with just one third of English local authorities recording laboratories' test results on the agency's national database.
The total number of food samples tested by official control laboratories in England has gone down by a quarter since 2009-10, the report said.
Although a substantial amount of testing was carried out by private food businesses, public authorities did not know the amount, nature or results of these tests.
Among the NAO's recommendations is that some resources should be shifted from such activities as the inspection of slaughter houses to the checking of the manufacture of processed meat products and the long supply chains involved, but this will require European agreement.
NAO head Amyas Morse said: "The January 2013 horsemeat incident has revealed a gap between what citizens expect of the controls over the authenticity of their food, and the effectiveness of those controls in reality.
"The division of responsibilities for food safety and authenticity has created confusion.
"The Government needs to remove this confusion, and improve its understanding of potential food fraud and how intelligence is brought together and shared."
A Government spokeswoman said: "The report concludes that the controls in place to protect consumers from food safety risks are effective, but we want to prevent food fraud as well.
"Defra and the FSA have already identified and begun work on the issues raised by the NAO. We are improving intelligence-sharing and identifying parts of the food chain which need the closest monitoring.
"Food authenticity testing is making sure that consumers can be confident in the foods they purchase. However, it is important to work more closely with industry and local authorities so that resources can be targeted where they will be most effective."
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: " It's clear from this report that David Cameron's botched departmental reorganisation created confusion about who was responsible for ensuring that meat was not wrongly being passed off as beef. Added to this confusion was the complete failure of ministers to take seriously the possibility that horsemeat was entering the food chain, despite clear indications of an increased risk that this was taking place.
"The chaotic structure put in place after the election should urgently be reviewed, with serious consideration given to bringing responsibility for food safety and authenticity back together."
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd 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.
"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."