Trust and Transparency

The Parliamentary EFRA Select Committee has today (2nd March) released the Food Standards Agency’s response to the inquiry on 2 Sisters and Standards in Poultry Processing. This response includes a summary of the FSA investigation on the specific issues raised by the Guardian and ITV in their articles.

The FSA report is clear, objective, and comprehensive; and despite being carried out in an atmosphere of high emotion has worked calmly to get to the bottom of the incidents. 2 Sisters is a member of the British Poultry Council so I am pleased that where shortcomings were identified the company and the regulators have worked closely together to correct them, and to put systems in place so that they are much less likely to happen again.

The report also looks to the future, and how trust and transparency must be the bedrock of regulation in our food production. But regulatory oversight is just one element of the system. This incident has also highlighted the work we still have to do in the relationship between the poultry meat sector and the general public. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the reaction of the media.

The media, from trade press to nationals, are an essential part of this country’s food production system. They are the window through which people can see what we do and how we do it, and there will be positive and negative. While no business wants to be on the receiving end of an undercover investigation, it is important that they are part of a journalistic toolbox. Instead, as industry we must ask ourselves what it is about our operations that would make a journalist think that an undercover investigation is worthwhile, as opposed to simply asking questions and visiting a site. That we might appear newsworthy in that context is certainly in our power to change.

The specific undercover investigation at 2 Sisters is, in hindsight, a good example of both the pros and cons of such an approach. It must be difficult in that situation to gauge the importance of what is being observed, with a fair amount of ‘that doesn’t look right’ kind of judgement. As it happens the journalist was fairly accurate in identifying some issues that didn’t ‘look right’. The FSA and the company agreed, and they worked together to correct them.

Of course any journalist, having found a ‘thing’, will then ask whether there is ‘something to hide’ and ‘someone to blame’. As someone who gave evidence in that hostile EFRA Select Committee session I would say that the pursuit of something to hide and someone to blame was zealously undertaken by both the politicians and the media. In light of the FSA investigation, perhaps over-zealously in the specific detail of the situation, but that’s where hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But there was an element of catharsis too. Such scrutiny does help focus on what is important, and that is twofold: how regulation will work in the future, and how as a sector we can build trust and transparency such that we are not seen as operating behind closed doors, and therefore newsworthy. As mentioned in the FSA report, new systems are being developed that will build an open regulatory process, including the use of technology to allow on-demand observation and early identification of emerging problems (that can then be fixed before anything goes wrong). This is exciting stuff, and is being accelerated by an open debate.

I asked why journalists would choose an undercover approach instead of visiting sites. Any journalist would probably say that because it’s the only way to get through the door. Perhaps opening some of those closed doors is a good place to start.

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