Budget cuts coupled with a two-thirds rise in reported food fraud have increased the risks of another horsemeat scandal, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report that is highly critical of government changes weakening food controls.
The cuts in testing also led to a loss of intelligence information, meaning “the government failed to identify the possibility of adulteration of beef products with horsemeat despite indications of heightened risk”, the NAO says.
It questions whether there will be sufficient capacity to respond to future incidents, given the dramatic decline since 2010 in the number of public analysts and laboratories capable of detecting food fraud. Just 29 public analysts remain out of 40, and four out of a total of 13 labs have closed in the last two years.
The watchdog’s inquiry has found a dramatic increase in food fraud, with one in six products failing tests for the presence of undeclared species in 2012. But until testing was ramped up after Irish authorities found horsemeat in beef in January 2013, no tests for undeclared horse in food had been conducted in England since 2003.
There were 1,380 reported cases of food fraud in 2012, up by two-thirds since 2010, as the recession and the rising cost of raw materials created the incentives for it. But over the same period, the number of food samples officially tested for safety and authenticity in England fell by a quarter as local authority funding suffered deep cuts.
The watchdog’s strongest criticism is aimed at the impact of the coalition’s “bonfire of the quangos”. It took overall responsibility for food policy away from the Food Standards Agency and divided it between the FSA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health (DH).
Defra is now in charge of checking that food is what it claims to be, DH looks after nutrition policy, and the FSA is left with food safety. The result was “confusion” when the horsemeat crisis hit.
The report said confusion continues and must be tackled either by bringing food back under one entity or by clarifying how the new structure could work.
The Consumers’ Association added its weight to the call for restoring powers over food controls to the FSA.
Executive director, Richard Lloyd, said: “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.”
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University also believes there is need for an urgent review of the changes made. “The scandal exposed how little knowledge even the most powerful companies have of what goes in to their food. The system put into place after mad cow disease has failed because central and local government enforcement has been quietly dismantled.”
The head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, said: “The January 2013 horsemeat incident has revealed a gap between what citizens expect of controls over their food and the effectiveness of those controls in reality. The government needs to remove the confusion and improve its understanding of potential food fraud and how intelligence is shared.”
Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Maria Eagle, called for a review of “the chaotic structure of food control put in place after the election”.
“It’s clear from this report that David Cameron’s botched departmental reorganisation created confusion about who was responsible. Added to this confusion was the complete failure of ministers to take seriously the possibility that meat was wrongly being passed off as beef, despite clear indications of an increased risk that this was taking place.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “The FSA and Defra are working together to tackle food fraud and address any confusion about our respective roles. Defra is responsible for policy on food labelling while the FSA is responsible for enforcement, including responding to incidents.”