Four steps to recover from horsemeat scandal, says ex-Northern Foods boss

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food standards agency Supply chain management

Supermarket buyers should have smelled a rat or a horse said Lord Haskins, the former Northern Foods boss
Supermarket buyers should have smelled a rat or a horse said Lord Haskins, the former Northern Foods boss
More rigorous supply chain management, transparency, accountability and proportionality are the four factors that will help the food industry clear the hurdles of the horsemeat scandal, according to the former boss of Northern Foods.

Speaking at the Assuring the Integrity of Food Chain conference at the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in York this week, Lord Haskins was damning in his criticism of the supermarket buyers for failing to spot the problem.

“There was huge pressure on everyone to keep food cheap,”​ said Haskins.

“Any professional buyer seeing the cheap meat coming in should have smelt a rat – or a horse,”​ he added.

Haskins, who joined Northern Dairies, as it was then, in 1961 and built it into one of the most dominant forces in the food industry, told delegates there were several steps that could be taken to restore consumer confidence.

Marks & Spencer

“The supplier pool needs to be as small as possible and people should be aware of subcontracting, especially when it comes to meat – at Northern Foods I never allowed it,”​ he said.

This should be coupled with constant unannounced factory visits, he said.

“Nothing beats it. When we were working with Marks & Spencer we would send a mob out,”​ he added.

Finally, in term of suppliers, there needed to be “constant training and brainwashing”​ about standards and expectations.

Haskins said transparency, accountability and proportionality had to be the three other watchwords over the coming months.

He said it was critical manufacturers and retailers told customers, suppliers and government what they were doing and “that there should be no cover ups”.

Furthermore, accountability needed to be clearer throughout the food chain, he told delegates at the event organised by the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership.

“I still don’t think some people know who was responsible for what. There needs to be a constant approach towards accountability – day after day and night after night.”

Finally, Haskins urged the industry to maintain a sense of proportionality because “horsemeat hasn’t killed anyone”.

“Food is a perilous business, as is life, and you can never totally eliminate risk,” ​he said.


In a separate address to delegates, John Barnes, the head of the Food Standards Agency’s local authority and liaison division, conceded it had been a challenge to convince consumers that the horsemeat issue wasn’t the tip of the iceberg.

Speaking about when the scandal first broke, Barnes said it hadn’t been credible “for anyone to stand up and say: ‘let’s get this into perspective’”.

He said it had been very difficult to convince consumers that British food was among the safest in the world “with this as a backdrop”.

Barnes echoed Haskins’ calls for greater transparency, but said it was also vital that there was improved intelligence information across the industry.

“This was a failure of intelligence, not a failure of testing,”​ he added, stating that 800 samples had been tested for meat authenticity in 2012, “but none of those had been for horse”​ because it wasn’t perceived to be a problem.

The Food Manufacture​ Group is staging a one-hour free webinar​ on the lessons to be learnt from the horsemeat crisis at 11am on May 16. More details of this online event – which will include speakers from Mintel, the Food Standards Agency, Leatherhead Food Research and event sponsor business law specialist DWF – are available here​.

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