Horsemeat: FSA must improve intelligence, says expert

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) must improve its intelligence or risk another major food fraud incident, the expert leading the review of the Agency’s response to the horsemeat scandal has warned.

Professor Pat Troop, who presented the preliminary findings of her review at the FSA Board meeting this afternoon, said she had asked a wide range of stakeholders, including government officials, industry leaders, local authorities bodies and individual companies if they had seen the horsemeat scandal coming. “Virtually everyone said no,” she said.

She added that while people had recognised that meat was a high-value product, vulnerable to fraud, no one had thought that beef would be targeted. This was despite warning signs in the horse world, such as the excess of horses on the market and the sudden drop of horsemeat prices across Europe.

“If people had joined the dots they might have spotted it, but I don’t think we have a system for joining the dots properly,” she said.

She recommended that the FSA concentrate on improving its intelligence as a priority, adding that it would need to gather information from a wide range of sources including the police, industry and local authorities, as well as through web searches using available software.

She said that there was also need for the FSA, the industry and other agencies to be “analysing and collectively thinking” about what the collective information could mean.

“The next incident could have major health and food safety impacts. It is important for everyone that the right set-up is in place to stop it as soon as possible,” she said.

However, she added that the FSA would need to work collaboratively with industry and make guarantees that information would be used in a sensitive way. She warned that some in the industry had found the joint meetings with the FSA during the horsemeat scandal confrontational. “That tends to put people on the defence,” she said.

In what was broadly a positive review, Professor Troop also recommended that the FSA should establish a major incident plan, pointing out that the existing protocol for dealing with incidents had proved insufficient during the horsemeat scandal.

“It is clear that, for many food safety incidents, the protocol served well, but it was not sufficient for a major incident,” she said.

She said that the Agency had later put stronger procedures place, which had allowed it to respond efficiently, and urged it to build on those procedures for the new plan.

Other recommendations included a review of the FSA’s enforcement powers. Professor Troop pointed out that a lack of powers had caused some delays, such as gaining entry to sites suspected of trading in illegal meat.

She said that the FSA might also need powers to force businesses to carry out sampling of products. However, she added that powers did not necessarily need to be established through legislation, pointing out that codes of conduct or framework agreements might suffice. “Legislation should only be for where it is really needed,” she said.

Professor Troop’s full report into the FSA’s response to the horsemeat scandal is due at the end of the month.