Sunday, 17 February 2013

Inspection cuts and the meat scandal

Environment Editor Rob Edwards highlights the cuts in regulatory activity that has led to the meat scandal in today's Sunday Herald.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered steep declines in the testing and inspection regimes meant to prevent frauds such as horsemeat being sold as beef. Experts are warning that such scandals could happen again, and politicians are demanding urgent action.
According to trade union Unison, the number of meat inspectors in Scotland has fallen by more than 50%, from 170 in 2003 to 75 today. A further five inspectors are facing redundancy with the closure of the Hall's meat factory in Broxburn, West Lothian.
Over the last four years there has been a 21% drop in the number of specialist food safety officers employed by local authorities. A survey by the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland has also revealed an 11% fall in the number of environmental health officers.
The institute's food safety adviser, George Fairgrieve, pointed out that the declines inevitably led to less work being done to protect public health. "A reduction in sampling is just one consequence of the cuts in local authority environmental health budgets," he said.
"A worrying impact of the reduction in the number of inspections being carried out is that the opportunity for fraudulent activities increases and law-abiding traders are disadvantaged."
Professor Andrew Watterson, head of the occupational and environmental health research group at the University of Stirling, argued that the horsemeat fiasco was a "sentinel event" with widespread implications.
"We need to protect public health better," he said. "Declines in meat inspector numbers and local authority food safety officers, along with reduced food sampling, must contribute to a weakening of public health standards and the possibility of criminal abuses in the food system."
He also criticised Government ministers for trying to heap the blame on food processors when it was their responsibility to safeguard public health, saying: "We need to revive, not marginalise, environmental health and food safety and raise standards of protection for consumers."
Unison's Scottish organiser, Dave Watson, accused governments of forgetting the lessons learned from the BSE crisis in the 1990s about controlling the meat industry.
He said: "Only strong, independent inspection can properly protect the public from industry malpractice.
"The current scandal follows cuts in meat inspection and environmental health services, proving that 'light touch' regulation has been a disaster for consumers."

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