Horsemeat scandal study calls for much tougher penalties for firms caught contaminating the food chain
• Scottish response to scandal good • Horizon scanning the new priority • Low fines fail to defer offenders
FIRMS responsible for food fraud should face heavy fines or even imprisonment, according to the Scottish experts investigating the horsemeat scandal.
The Expert Advisory Group (EAG), appointed by Holyrood, has also called for a specialist procurator fiscal to prosecute food safety cases, to make the criminal justice system more effective.
The EAG, chaired by Scotland’s former chief vet Jim Scudamore, reported that the national response to the scandal had been good, with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Scotland working with local authorities in a “coordinated manner.”
But “difficulties” in taking food safety cases to court in Scotland meant that there were no strong deterrents in place.
“Even when successful, the penalties imposed tend neither to be a deterrent nor financially proportionate to the reward,” the report stated. “Meaningful fines or custodial penalties need to accompany serious food fraud otherwise it will continue to be seen as a relatively risk-free enterprise.”
Spot checks, of the type that first identified horsemeat masquerading as processed beef, should be stepped up, with special emphasis on the weakest links in the food chain. “These checks should be based on perceived risk, the economics of the industry and the ability to identify where and when potential fraud may occur.”
Those and other measures, such as clearer labelling and information on country of origin, could help restore the consumer confidence that has been undermined by the horsemeat scandal, the report suggests. The EAG notes that short supply chains make those goals easier to achieve, but that they are not always possible to achieve.
For the future, the EAG stressed the importance of “horizon scanning”, (searching for potential long-term developments, including in areas where knowledge is currently weak) intelligence gathering, regular testing and surveillance. Risk registers and rapid alerts would, the report added, help the FSA move quickly and effectively.
The Scottish Parliament’s proposed new food body – agreed in Holyrood last summer – will work with the FSA on longer-term recommendations.
“There is always,” the report noted, “the opportunity for unscrupulous traders to replace one ingredient in a product with another if there is a major price differential and the opportunity arises.
“The major challenge for the food industry and the regulatory authorities is to identify the next big opportunity for fraudulent behaviour and seek to prevent it before it can be exploited.”