Can we still bring home the bacon?
AGROMENES has long warned of the toxic effect of food scares. Farming that creates and sustains our countryside depends on the trust of its customers. Those who can choose what they eat don’t take risks with their food—and that is true all over the world. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised to discover last week that it’s likely that the world’s largest meat processor will have to pull its major share offering on the New York Stock Exchange because of a food-safety scandal.
Claims that Brazilian company JBS had ignored health-and-safety rules led to immediate closure of its export markets from China to Chile. Although they have now reopened, the fallout from the allegations is likely to blight the company’s plans to raise a billion dollars for international expansion.
This news comes on the 30th anniversary of the UK Ministry of Agriculture recognising the existence of BSE. ‘Mad cow’ disease devastated the British meat industry and cast a long shadow for many years to come. Indeed, even now, three decades later, in any new food scare, Britain wouldn’t be given a second chance. The trouble is that the safety failures of one farmer or a single processing business could blight the whole industry.
Just look at JBS. It may well be that the company has done nothing wrong. It claims that the bribery of health officials affects other companies, but not JBS. That may well prove to be right, but it will be too late. The damage is done, despite JBS’S long-standing reputation for high safety standards. Its push for major expansion is stalled and Brazilian farming as well as the Brazilian economy more generally are very seriously damaged.
It’s an example and an anniversary that ought to make us look again at the regulatory system here in the UK. It’s three years since Prof Chris Elliott produced a review of our food-supply networks. It revealed very serious gaps in our system, exposed the extent of food crime and demanded urgent action. The Coalition Government set up the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), improved our network of food analytical laboratories and sought to make crossgovernment coordination more effective. Since then, very little has been done. There is no regular monitoring of the position nor is there an independent assessment of the measures’ success.
In fact, we have gone backwards. Cuts in the Defra budget, insufficient funding for the NFCU and failure to update our regulations put farming at serious risk. We simply don’t have the manpower to enforce the rules we have and they are insufficient to counter the increasingly complex nature of the threat. Ireland and most other countries in the EU have more effective enforcement —as they do even in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
This not only poses a threat to the future of agriculture, it will cause particular difficulties as we leave the EU. Our meat producers depend for much of their living on exporting beef and lamb. Until now, Europe’s reputation for food integrity and the common negotiation of trade deals have meant that Britain’s regulatory system has been a given. Once we start negotiating our own deals, other countries will need the UK to demonstrate the reach of its rules and the effectiveness of its regulators.
Liam Fox may not know one end of an abattoir from the other, however, the people he needs to trade with do. All that talk about a ‘bonfire of controls’ will be unavailing. The UK will have to get its food-safety house in order or there will be no agricultural trade deals at all.
‘Insufficient funding for the National Food Crime Unit has put farming at risk