Meat suppliers group slammed for horsemeat secrecy

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fsa, Food standards agency, Board of directors

The food safety watchdog slammed the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers for failing to share information
The food safety watchdog slammed the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers for failing to share information
The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) has been criticised by the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for refusing to share precise details about a recent incident of horsemeat contamination in a shipment of beef.

Giving her report to the FSA Board meeting yesterday (June 4), Catherine Brown said AIMS had told her and FSA operations director Andrew Rhodes about the incident. But it refused to provide further information about the food business involved for reasons of confidentiality.

“It is very disappointing that AIMS chose to withhold information from organisations that aim to protect the consumer,”​ said Brown. “Despite pressing our point, AIMS were not prepared to break a confidence. This was a shame.”

The FSA has since passed what information it had about the incident on to the police for further investigation.

In reply to a question put by board member Jeff Halliwell, Brown said she was particularly disappointed “especially when I thought our relationship​ [with AIMS] was improving”​.

Halliwell, previously md of businesses including Fox’s Biscuits/Northern Foods, Bernard Matthews and First Milk, also described the AIMS decision as “extremely disappointing”.

‘Biggest nut to crack’

Rhodes said: “The intelligence story is the biggest nut to crack.”​ He recognised that the food industry would inevitably have access to far more information on potential incidents than the FSA.

In a discussion on food authenticity which followed, Rhodes announced the setting up of a UK Authenticity Steering Group between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the FSA. The group was intended to learn lessons from the horsemeat scandal and  would be established once the various reviews into the crisis delivered their reports, he said.

The reviews include one being carried out by Professor Pat Troop, who recently retired as chief executive of the Health Protection Agency, which is now part of Public Health England, into the way the FSA handled the incident. Giving a progress report to the board in advance of delivering her final report at the end of June, Troop made four recommendations to the FSA.

Potential prosecutions

These included improving its use of “shared intelligence”​; improvement to the FSA’s major incident plan; providing better clarity of the respective roles of individuals and organisation involved; and a review of the FSA’s powers. Troop suggested changes in the law might be necessary to allow FSA inspectors to have greater right of entry to business premises to gather evidence for potential prosecutions, for example.

In Troop’s interviews with food businesses, however, one of the reservations expressed was that intelligence might be used inappropriately by the FSA. That might include giving bad publicity to firms that had shared information with it about incidents in which they had acted to prevent incidents of fraud from occurring.

FSA Board members were critical of the “muddle”​ that surrounded the horsemeat crisis from its beginnings on January 15. They attributed this to the government’s decision to devolve some of the FSA’s responsibilities in 2010, such as that for labelling to DEFRA and others to the Department of Health (DH).

“The horsemeat issue has shown what a muddle it is when three departments ​[DEFRA, FSA and DH] are dealing with labelling,”​ said FSA chairman Jeff Rooker, who stands down after four years on July 26. Rooker added that it would provide more clarity for the industry and less confusion for consumers if just one body – the FSA – was once again responsible for authenticity.

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