Background

The recent European horse meat investigation uncovered that a number of products sold or labelled as beef across Europe contained equine DNA (horse meat). A number of sample results also indicated the presence of porcine DNA (pork meat) in beef and chicken products, which can have particular relevance to faith groups where products are marketed as halal or kosher.

Recent reports by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) suggest that the aftermath of the horse meat scandal is likely to result in closer scrutiny of the integrity of supply chains, labelling and descriptions of food generally across a range of food businesses including producers, packagers, retailers and caterers.

FSA Independent Review

The FSA is the body responsible for food safety and food hygiene across the UK. On 4 June, at an open Board meeting, Professor Pat Troop presented the key findings of her independent review of the Agency’s handling of the adulteration of processed beef products with horse and pig meat and DNA.

Professor Troop outlined how better collaboration and co-ordination of the response to future major incidents may be achieved through the collaborative approaches of industry codes of conduct and framework agreements with local authorities. Proposals for a comprehensive action plan will be presented to the Board at its next open meeting on 16 July.

Food Fraud Investigation by BBC

Meanwhile, last week the BBC aired an investigation into ‘food fraud’ in the UK.

The programme’s remit went beyond horse meat and reported on: less expensive fish sold as cod; country of origin claims where jams were sold as containing fruit from Suffolk, England, when the fruit actually came from China; eggs labelled as free range which were produced by battery hens; and products sold as organic which were actually repackaged supermarket (non-organic) items.

This highlights that the aftermath of the horse meat scandal is likely to go well beyond meat and meat integrity alone. In the short term it is likely that any enforcement action will be aimed at those parties within the food chain who have knowingly sought to obtain a financial advantage by selling horse meat as beef.

However, the BBC investigation highlights that the focus is already extending to other products and label claims; and the FSA Report references to ‘industry codes of practice’ suggests that a range of food businesses will be expected to have reasonable precautions in place to help prevent ‘food fraud’ by themselves or others within the food chain.

Reasonable Precautions – Horses for Courses

What will amount to ‘reasonable precautions’ will depend on the facts – due diligence is in reality ‘horses for courses’ as what will be reasonable will depend on a number of factors, such as the nature and resources of the business, the potential for harm (for example, number of customers or type of product) and whether the food is own-branded. However, many businesses will not be able to rely only upon certification or documentation received from suppliers.

Food businesses should act now to:

  1. Assess the risks;
  2. Consider and implement safeguards to protect the business against identified risks (this may include supplier warranties, random sampling and third party verification);
  3. Document all systems and due diligence measures agreed, including training records;
  4. Operate systems introduced on an on-going basis, including audits to check compliance and post-audit support to deal with non-compliances;
  5. Consider working with your Local Authority to develop your system of safeguards, particularly if you have the benefit of a Primary Authority Partnership.

Labelling Requirements

Remember that in addition to any due diligence measures introduced at company level, there are separate legal obligations in relation to labelling and in the UK, the new Food Information for Consumers Regulations will come into force in December 2014, which will have implications for all food businesses in terms of whether / how products will need to be labelled in future.