Food policy in the United Kingdom contributed to a failure to recognise the heightened risk of adulterated food products entering the food chain, according to a report from the UK's National Audit Office (NAO).
The horsemeat-tainted beef scandal that came to light in January exposed weaknesses in government controls of the food supply chain, and showed the complexity of the supply chain. Since the end of August, the Food Standards Agency has tested 24,480 samples from 17 product lines and found 47 positive tests for horse DNA.
Additionally, the NAO revealed that 1,380 new cases of fraud were recorded on the national food fraud database in 2012, a two-thirds increase since 2009.
In its review, the NAO found that splitting responsibilities for food policy in England has caused confusion among agencies tasked with ensuring food safety and food authenticity. The UK government transferred responsibilities for food authenticity and composition policy (where not related to food safety), and for nutritional labelling from the Food Standards Agency to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department of Health, respectively. Enforcement responsibilities remained with local authorities.
An FSA review found that some of its own staff and local authorities were confused, during the early stages of the response to the horsemeat problem, about which department was leading the investigation.
The NAO audit also found that UK food-safety authorities had not tested for possible horsemeat contamination since 2003. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland decided to test for adulterated beef products on concerns that retail prices were not reflecting a substantial increase in beef prices. Additionally, the agency found that global prices for horsemeat had fallen, thus, there were incentives to commit food fraud.
The NAO found that the FSA did not have a complete picture of all public testing, and that the amount of public testing by private food businesses was substantial, but food safety authorities did not know the amount, nature or results of the tests.
Source: The National Audit Office (NAO)