There are a number of issues that have come out of the desinewed meat situation, among them is which branch of Government has the mandate to represent the interests of food producers on the subject of food safety.
Defra hold the responsibility up to the point that food safety, or more specifically up to the point where the Food Hygiene Regulation takes precedence. Here the Food Standards Agency is the competent authority, but as is regularly reiterated the FSA’s only responsibility is the protection of consumers.
So DSM was an example of the FSA being the UK voice in Brussels but having no mandate to represent anything other than a consumer perspective. That leaves food producers in an unenviable position of relying on the good will of the FSA, and hoping that consumer and producers perspectives do not deviate dramatically. Good will and hope should not be the only weapons to be entering a legislative fray with.
Industry was fortunate this time around (adding luck to our arsenal); the FSA through some very able and conscientious people felt that consumers and food producers were best served through the same approach. We were able to support the FSA with clear and persuasive arguments in a number of areas of contention, and as a result the poultry sector at least moves forward having mitigated losses and in a clarified regulatory position.
The concern remains that food producers do not have an arm of Government mandated to promote its views on issues of food safety. Processed animal proteins (PAPs) for use in feed is another case in point. The FSA, under its current mandate, rejected the use of PAPs on concerns over consumer health and perception. At the time the food industry put forward scientifically and commercially sound reasons to accept the use of PAPs but these were rejected, and with no Government voice to argue the case for food producers. In this instance there was no immediate detriment to the decision, but simply a loss of opportunity.
Admittedly if the FSA were to have to represent both parties it could lead to some spectacularly schizophrenic debates. However other countries, such as the New Zealand FSA, manage just fine in this respect. Even so, an issue where all the evidence must be weighed is surely better than one where half the argument can safely, from an organisational perspective, be dismissed peremptorily.
The EFRA Select Committee is currently asking these very questions as part of its inquiry into DSM. This is not a debate on what might happen, but a reflection on the damage that has happened. Loss of livelihoods has occurred because of the European Commission’s action – and arguably the UK and devolved Governments’ inaction. The Committee is rightly asking whether more account of the impact on British food producers should have been taken.
The opportunity is there for industry to make its case for named representation by Government, and whatever the final outcome we may at least, much like with DSM, finally know exactly where we stand.