Can we still bring home the ba­con?

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor - Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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

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