Deputy editor Rob Mair considers whether the FSA have bitten off more than they can chew:
The horse meat scandal shows little sign of abating, and now Iceland’s chief executive, Malcolm Walker, has fanned the flames further by saying “invisible” sources are to blame – including schools.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning, Mr Walker said: “If you’re looking to blame somebody who is driving down food quality, it is invisible: it’s schools, it’s hospitals, it’s prisons, it’s local authorities who are driving this down.”
Understandably, the mere mention of the word ‘school’ has sent parents and carers into panic. But news on Friday implicating private caterers meant it was only a matter of time before a number of school dinners are found to contain horse meat.
So it was no surprise when The Guardian reported that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had conducted raids against three food companies in Hull and north London. They found that cottage pies destined for 47 schools across Lancashire were contaminated. Alarmingly, they couldn’t tell how long the food had been on the menu, or if pupils had eaten it.
And while there is a sad inevitability about this, it does add credence to Mr Walker’s argument that it is these companies, which don’t perhaps possess the same rigorous testing as the “visible” supermarkets are the ones lowering the standards. And despite the scandal first breaking with supermarket ready meals, he could have a point – at present only 2% of tested meals have found to be contaminated.
So where will the scandal go next? Well, it’s clear the Food Standards Agency is eager to get it under control. They will continue to publish statistics on a weekly basis, and they have clear guidelines at which they’re testing to – that is 1% being horse meat. This is, according to FSA chief executive Catherine Brown, for two reasons: “First, that’s a pragmatic level above which we think any contamination would be due to either gross incompetence or deliberate fraud; it’s not going to be accidental. Second, some laboratories can only test accurately down to a level of 1%.”
Will that be enough? Only time will tell, but it’s clear the current system has failed and allowed gross incompetence or deliberate fraud – no doubt driven by profit margins – to creep into the system. The next step will be for the FSA to tighten the safeguards to ensure it doesn’t happen again – and considering the outcry, you’d hope food suppliers would have their houses in order long before new guidelines are published.