After the horse has bolted?
Unscrupulous employers, government cuts and deregulation of the food safety industry are at the heart of the horsemeat scandal and the risk to food safety. So say the International Union of Food Workers, the Labour Party and the trade union which represents trading standards officers.
The discovery of horsemeat in processed beef products in January resulted in a series of product recalls that threw the spotlight on criminal and fraudulent activity in the UK food industry’s supply chain.
In response the government and supermarket chains are promising to introduce a stricter food-testing regime across Europe.
But will this be enough? The International Union of Food (IUF) workers, a world-wide federation of trade unions that includes Unite, believes the real cause of the problem is ‘low pay, contract labour, unscrupulous employers, fear, loathing and desperation.’
The IUF is currently supporting a walk out at the global research centre in the Netherlands by Unilever catering workers desperate to secure decent transfer conditions when they are outsourced to Sodexo. Last year, Unite members at Unilever were forced to take strike action following the proposed closure of the final-salary pension scheme.
Sodexo is Britain’s biggest catering company but was forced to remove all frozen beef products after positive tests for horse DNA. The company provides food to 2,300 UK establishments including many schools. It has now promised to offer beef products in future based on DNA tests.
Mary Creagh, Labour’s shadow food minister, would feel happier if this self-regulation was supported by an efficient independent public sector system of checks.
She has criticised the government for stripping the Food Standards Agency (FSA) of its role as the organisation with sole responsibility for food composition. In a 2010 cost-cutting exercise the FSA retained its food safety responsibilities but lost sole responsibility for food composition and labelling to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Craigh said: “A more fragmented and bureaucratic system and this horsemeat scandal have shown there are serious flaws to be addressed.”
Her Labour colleagues in the European Parliament mirror Creagh’s concerns. In 2011, new rules were agreed to improve food labelling. However Labour MEPs were left disappointed when their amendment, extending the rules to ensure fresh meat was labelled with the country of origin, was backed by the European Parliament but rejected by Ministers following pressure from food manufacturers. As a result a compromise was reached to monitor the situation and return to the issue next year.
Linda McAvan, the Labour MEP spokesperson on food safety, believes: “If Findus had been obliged to label the origin of the beef in its lasagne, my guess is that it would have paid much greater attention to its sourcing policies.” She is seeking to bring next year’s promised review forward.
UNISON, the public-sector union, is also concerned by food labelling and has highlighted that the numbers of trading standards officers employed to oversee the issue has shrunken dramatically under the current government. 743 jobs were lost in trading standards at council level between 2009-10 and 2011-12 and funding has dropped from £280 million a year to £213 million last year. There is a further planned decrease to just £140 million next year. UNISON is also concerned that the European Union is proposing to water down proposals for UK meat inspectors in abattoirs to physically inspect all meat leaving the premises.
A spokesperson for the IUF said: “It is clear we need strong legislation but food safety standards go hand in hand with labour standards. Workers organised into unions and with collective bargaining agreements will set the standards to enable food safety to be appropriately monitored by workers. This is something that employers and Governments need to recognise and act upon.”