Horse meat Review - key findings of the Food Standards Agency's handling of the incident

United Kingdom

At the Food Standards Agency (FSA) open Board meeting on 4th June 2013, Professor Pat Troop presented the key findings of her review of the FSA's handling of the adulteration of processed beef products with horse and pig meat and DNA. The review may be accessed here.

The 4 key points of the review highlighted by the FSA were:

- The need for improved intelligence sharing and analysis across the sector
- The need for the FSA to strengthen its Major Incident Plan
- Improved clarity of the role of Government departments in large complex incidents
- A review of the FSA's powers and the use of framework agreements and codes of conduct

Examining each of these areas in turn:

Improved intelligence sharing and analysis

The FSA does have an 'Emerging Risks' process and Fraud Unit but the need for a wider programme, plus horizon scanning, has been put forward.

However, before any specific recommendations are made it would be beneficial for the FSA to liaise with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) to find out exactly what triggered their own process of analysis of certain meat products and why it was not deemed appropriate in the UK. No reference to this has been made in the review.

Since March, the FSA has been working to establish a better joint infrastructure for sharing, using and analysing intelligence. Nevertheless, with European wide supply chains a key part of intelligece sharing is the Rapid Alert System for Food & Feed (RASFF) that concentrates solely on safety issues, an immediate and useful change would be to extend this to all events that have the potential to affect a sector. Similarly no reference to this has so far been made in the review.

Major Incident Plan

The FSA has begun work on an improved and extended Major Incident Plan; however, whilst an initial revision may assist, to be completed it requires the building blocks of the FSA's remit and powers to be clearly agreed first.

Clarity of Role/Remit & Powers

Since 2010 the role of the FSA that has been reduced to "food safety incidents, including misleading labelling and food fraud with possible food safety implications". In relation to the FSA's early response to the horsemeat contamination it has been stated there was some 'hesitancy' as it did not concern food safety with a major health impact.

FSA Chief Executive, Catherine Brown, said at the meeting: "It is striking that there was a large degree of agreement among other Government departments, and among senior staff here, that the role of the FSA was to lead the investigation of this national food incident, regardless of the extent to which there was any food safety risk. We do need to formalise that understanding, and embed it in both our own organisation and across Government, so that we are all ready to respond should there be a similar incident in the future"...Catherine Brown continued that a major issue was "how better collaboration and co-ordination of the response to future major incidents may be achieved through the collaborative approaches of industry codes of conduct and framework agreements with local authorities, in line with our commitment to treat legislation as a last resort."

Whilst this argues for a revision of the role of the FSA vis-à-vis major incidents, it mitigates against the consideration of formally extending the enforcement powers of the FSA. The FSA relied on cooperation to manage the incident and it is pointed out they had no powers to require testing or receive information from industry. Any report should assess how well the voluntary approach and cooperation with industry worked. It is hoped that the actual use of powers be restricted based on the facts that full voluntary cooperation has appeared to be given from all sectors.

Proposals for a comprehensive action plan will be presented to the Board at its next open meeting on 16 July.

The final report from Professor Troop is scheduled to be published on the FSA website at the end of June.