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Last Updated: Friday, 29 August, 2003, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Fit to police the food industry?
Do regulations ensure sub-standard meat stays off the market?
As a court case concerning the sale of unfit meat grabs the headlines, should consumers be worried about the food they are buying in shops and restaurants?

A case at Nottingham Crown court has raised the spectre of another food scare in the UK.

One man was convicted and five others pleaded guilty to taking part in a scam to sell hundreds of tonnes of contaminated poultry.

The news is the latest in a long line of scares to affect the food industry.

At the start of the year, a Food Standards Agency (FSA) investigation claimed food not fit for human consumption could have ended up on tables across the UK as a result of legal loopholes.

Other scares in recent years have included E.Coli outbreaks, mad cow disease and salmonella in eggs.

Legal duty

So what standards are food companies held to?

All food operators have a legal duty to ensure that the food they produce is safe to eat, of an acceptable quality and is properly labelled.

A number of agencies ensure they stick to the law - including Trading Standards, Environmental Health Officers and the FSA.

We know that this problem isn't going to go away, but we believe the work being done will help better protect the public
Food Standards Agency
Andrew Griffiths of the Chartered Institute for Public Health believes safety and hygiene standards are improving.

But, he adds: "It's to do with penalties more than anything else."

"The incentives are still there for people to break the law while huge profits are available to the people involved.

"That won't change until there are higher penalties."

'Rigorously enforced'

However, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) says that the law as it stands is "fine" but does need to be properly enforced.

Elizabeth Hogben of the NFU said: "In terms of food safety in agriculture there are things that the industry is doing to make sure that standards are high enough and to instil confidence in consumers.

She cites the "Little Red Tractor" scheme - a logo identifying food produced according to British standards - as a good example of this.

"In terms of doing something illegal, the law is fine but controls must be as rigorously enforced as possible."

FSA logo
The Food Standards Agency "does all it can" to prevent food scares
Meanwhile, the FSA itself has come under heavy criticism since the end of the Nottingham condemned meat case.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Perry, who led the investigation into the case, said: "We don't believe the FSA have taken this matter seriously enough.

"There have been serious problems in convincing them about the risks posed to the public and the fact that no new, dedicated investigators have been appointed is a concern."

Specialists also claim the FSA's small team and budget is not enough to tackle food fraud.

MP Andrew George, Liberal Democrat spokesman on food said the FSA gives the impression that they are "running to catch up" with problems rather than uncovering them.

He said: "The FSA's record so far does seem rather lacklustre.

"Their investigations are not coming from their own work or own volition.

"There is a deep concern that the FSA should live up to what it is set up to do."

However, the FSA says it has done "all it can".

It added it has brought in new rules that require "high-risk" animal waste be stained with black dye.

"High-risk waste being stained black is a very real deterrent," said an FSA spokeswoman.

New rules

The agency added it also now hopes to consult with the industry on the matter of marking low-risk waste, often cuts of condemned meat.

Responding to Det Ch Insp Perry's criticism, an FSA spokesman said the agency had established an Illegal Meat Taskforce, a nationwide network of 30 food detectives specially trained to be able to assist with the detection and investigation of meat scams.

He said the detectives were already working for local authorities, and would be seconded to special illegal meat investigations when required.

The incentives are still there for people to break the law while huge profits are available to the people involved
Andrew Griffiths, Chartered Institute for Public Health

"If we had 30 people working on these cases full time there just wouldn't be enough work," he said.

The taskforce is being assisted by a team of five investigators - mostly former senior police officers - based at the FSA, with two extra investigators currently being recruited.

The FSA has also helped produce a new industry code of practice to ensure businesses take seriously their responsibility for ensuring that unfit meat does not enter the human food chain.

It added that new EU legislation will crack down on meat "brokers" - traders who rarely handle the goods but set up deals to sell on illegal produce.

"New EU legislation will force the brokers to supply much more documentation about where the meat has come from," said the FSA.

"The ability for investigators to trace meat and to look at the supply chains is crucial to help stamp out the fraud.

"We know that this problem isn't going to go away, but we believe the work being done will help better protect the public."

Mad cow case scares beef trade
21 May 03  |  Business
Charges dropped in unfit meat trial
29 Aug 03  |  Nottinghamshire
Unfit meat 'may be in food chain'
23 Jan 03  |  UK News
Exploding the food myths
20 Aug 03  |  Health

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