Fighting food fraud and fabrication
When shopping or eating out in the UK, we can choose from a huge variety of food products. Supermarkets, corner shops and markets are jam-packed with produce which has been sourced from all over the world.
Such abundance is dependent on a complex production system, and, as with any such system, things can sometimes go wrong. Mistakes can be made, and unscrupulous manufacturers and retailers can lie about food quality and food ingredients. Food may be sold when it is past its best, or it may contain unlabeled ingredients which may be harmful to our health.
Any food that is mislabelled may well come to the attention of trading standards officers (TSOs), the men and women who are on the front line of policing our food system. These local authority employees check that shoppers are not misled by inaccurate information.
They respond to consumer complaints, and conduct their own surveys, sampling food and drink across the UK. Any manufacturer or retailer selling food which, “is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded,” may find themselves answering to their local TSO, who also has the power to take them to court.
When a TSO suspects they have found a problem, and needs hard evidence, they must turn to the experts, the public analysts – the scientists who can examine a product and reveal exactly what it contains. For instance, a TSO might want to check whether a product has been re-labelled with a new ‘use-by’ date, or whether a ‘low fat’ claim is accurate, and the public analyst can verify this by using laboratory tests. Should a case go to court, the public analyst’s opinion is invaluable, and as such they play a crucial role in protecting the public’s health.
The public analyst service is essential, but their laboratories are threatened by a lack of funding and the number of labs is dwindling. Faced with an uncertain future, the flow of new recruits to the service is now drying up.
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Our food system does not police itself. Sadly, the foods intended for our tables are sometimes produced by fools, sometimes by crooks and sometimes by the careless. Bob Stevens reports.
Dangerous food colourings – peanuts and other allergens – offal in burgers – toxins from mould – pesticide residues in fruit and veg – hormones – food fraud: it is thanks to public analysts, independent experts who perform analysis of food samples and give evidence in court about malpractice, that consumers are protected from these risks.
That sounds like a pretty important role, doesn’t it? Certainly an exciting and challenging one. And yet, the public analyst profession is facing extinction through continued neglect.
As a result of continuing cut backs, laboratories have been closing year on year. From 35 in 1995, there are now only 13 public analyst laboratories for the whole of England and Wales. The crisis has been brought about by the way in which these laboratories are funded. Effectively, their funds depend upon the number of samples submitted to them for analysis by trading standards and environmental health officers, and those numbers are steadily falling.
Worse, new public analysts are not coming forward at a rate sufficient to match retirement because the lab staff who would normally work to qualify by private study are no longer convinced that they have a future.
The profession has been caught between the rock of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) refusing to set any standards for the number of food samples to be taken and tested, and the hard place of local authorities around the UK having too many competing demands for their limited finances.
Retailers which sell unfit food or drink are often given a warning before being prosecuted, but if that does not work they can face stiff fines.
The supermarket Morrisons discovered this to their cost when the work of a public analyst proved they were continuing to sell fish which had gone off, despite a previous warning. Worcestershire County Council successfully prosecuted the supermarket chain in January 2008 for two instances of selling ‘fresh fish’ which was in an unacceptable condition.
Morrisons, which had recently run an advertising campaign highlighting the freshness of their products, was fined £19,500 and an additional £2,135 in costs.
Up until the late 1990s, most local authorities based their sampling activities on a target of three samples per 1,000 population per year. While undeniably a crude measure, this did at least ensure some level of sampling and the assurance of a steady flow of work, which allowed investment by the laboratories in new equipment (such as to detect genetically modified ingredients and allergen contamination), and in training new public analysts.
This performance target, on which the laboratories depended, was abolished by FSA officials soon after the Agency was set up. Local authorities since then have been free to do as much or as little sampling as they choose, under the banner of local accountability and discretion.
Back in 1990, an estimated £150 million was earmarked by central government as the total amount it expected local authorities to spend on food enforcement. That amount should have been steadily rising because of inflation, and new challenges to food safety and quality. In practice, however, the amount spent on actual testing of safety and quality has been falling.
Examples can now be seen of authorities, with similar population levels, spending as little as £5,000 or as much as £100,000 a year, depending on the affluence of the authority, and the priority it gives to food safety. As a consequence, the extent to which consumers’ interests in food are protected varies enormously by region.
The FSA was set up to reverse years of food industry favouritism from the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and one of FSA's by-words has been, “putting consumers first,” so it is strange that their officials should have taken action with such negative consequences for consumer protection.
Since the creation of the FSA, the Association of Public Analysts (APA) has been pressing its case with officials, and has attended countless meetings. The most recent round of talks began more than a year ago, but nothing concrete has emerged, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, for whatever reason, officials do not share public analysts' sense of urgency.
Unless something is done soon to finance food enforcement analysis, the public analyst profession, and with it a vital part of consumer protection, will disappear. Those who argue that the industry should be allowed to police itself are either dupes or fools. They should be reminded of what industry can get up to when left to its own devices, such as the mislabelling of nutrient levels, the spurning of traffic light nutrition labelling and the routine addition of water to so-called 'premium' meats.
The spend nationally on the public analyst service is less than 10p per person per year, and if it had to be increased to a whole pound to provide the public with an adequate level of protection, would this cause any hardship?
EC regulations require member states to ensure that there are, “sufficient numbers of suitably qualified staff,” in the enforcement system. With numbers declining in an uncontrolled way, it is difficult to see how the UK is now complying with this requirement. If the UK is failing to control its food production in the way that the EC requires, this is bound to have negative consequences for UK food exports. It is no coincidence that the illegal dye Sudan 1 was found in Worcester sauce, not by a UK lab, but in Italy, having gone undetected where the sauce was produced in Rochdale.
Similarly, if imports of adulterated chicken products are not controlled, the domestic poultry industry will suffer. In either event, the costs nationally would far outweigh the costs of continuing to run the public analyst service.
Illegal dye escaped detection by UK labs
Prior to 2003, Sudan I in food could be thought of, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s term, as an, “unknown unknown,” but by 2005 knowledge of its use as an illegal colour in spices was widespread, and legislation was in place requiring imports into the EU to be certified free of Sudan I and its close relatives Sudan II, III & IV.
So, the UK was clear about the need to be alert for these dyes. Yet, the discovery of Sudan I in Worcester sauce that prompted the recall of hundreds of different food items, in the UK, in February 2005, happened in Italy.
Dr Duncan Campbell, public analyst for West Yorkshire, feels that it was no coincidence that it was not picked up in the UK. He says, “The UK food law enforcement system is chronically under resourced. When budgets come under pressure, cutting sampling is painless – at least until the next Sudan crisis.”
The following is a quote from the report of the Sudan I Review Panel published in July 2007. “We became aware during our meetings that during the Sudan I incident there were major concerns about the availability and capacity of analytical laboratories to undertake the necessary testing of samples. In the short time available to us we were unable to pursue as far as we would like the underlying causes of this and the extent to which it hampered the handling of the incident. We recommend that the FSA should ascertain the UK laboratory capacity available to assist in major incidents of this nature, including public analysts, and pursue the matter within Government if it is deemed to be insufficient.”
According to Campbell, the lack of laboratories is the result of chronic and continued underfunding. He says, “The Food Standards Agency is required by EC regulations to ensure that there is an adequate provision of accredited laboratory services... The current situation where the Agency appoints official food testing laboratories but does not fund them, doesn't allow the Agency to meet its responsibilities in this area.”
What is the solution?
The FSA was set up to be independent of government, and to protect the public’s health and consumer interests in relation to food. Its Board should issue a policy statement on its support for the public analyst service, and instruct its officials to give some urgency and re-direction to the current review which began a year ago. It needs to find a way of refocusing the UK’s food control effort, because the control of our food supply should sensibly be organised nationally and not be left to cash strapped local authorities.