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Changes needed in wake of horse meat scandal
3:57pm Friday 8th March 2013 in Farming
ONCE again, a food scandal has brought farming and food supply chain issues into the headlines.
Like salmonella in eggs and BSE in beef before it, our industry has returned to the centre of media attention for all the wrong reasons – this time thanks to horse meat.
After the shock headlines, we have now moved on to the culpability stage, asking who knew what and when and what they did about it at the time.
Supermarkets are making their pledges to ensure it never happens again.
Shoppers are clamouring over local, unprocessed food, finally asking all the right questions about where it comes from and what has been done to it.
The question I am asking myself, though, is – why has this has taken so long to come to light?
The animal feed industry has been taking seriously the provenance of the food that livestock eats for more than ten years, with full audits of suppliers and their processes and a declaration of ingredients, in order of inclusion, on every single delivery.
Local food has many advantages. Shorter supply chains mean that fewer people need to take a profit and more money remains within local communities and the consumer knows exactly where the food on their plate comes from.
Think local, buy local is a good starting point, but it cannot be the complete answer.
Farmers in remote areas need to be able to send their produce further afield as there are simply not enough people in their locality to make a viable business.
Likewise, anyone surviving on a diet of food produced exclusively from within a 20- mile radius of where they live would probably be falling somewhat short of the Government’s “five-aday”
dietary recommendation for fresh fruit and vegetables.
So, not all food miles are bad food miles.
I have also spoken to people who have decided to ensure the authenticity of the meat they consume by boycotting all processed products, only eating an animal if it “looks like it’s supposed to”.
But where does that leave all the local butchers and other businesses that make their own mince, sausages and burgers?
The real problem, as I see it, is that for too long we’ve taken too much for granted.
As we’ve lost contact and interest in where our food comes from, it’s easy to take received information or sophisticated marketing as the complete truth. Words like “top quality” and “specially selected” printed on a package are undoubtedly reassuring, but ultimately meaningless when it comes to ensuring the integrity of the food inside.
Indeed, the CLA has long campaigned for a closure of the loophole in laws that allows imported meat to be labelled as British simply because it is processed and packaged in this country.
British livestock farmers comply with the most stringent codes of practice on animal welfare and health, traceability of livestock movement, raw materials, environmental management, health and safety and the minimum wage.
Anyone found transgressing these regulations faces hefty penalties. And yet, despite all of these safeguards that are in place, consumers have been happy to buy food, production unseen, from abroad because it appears to be a similar product but for a cheaper price.
We have not only wanted our cake (or meat) to eat it, but also to put change in our pockets, too. So, hopefully, this is a wake-up call.
Those in the food industry – from primary producers to processors and retailers – who have been doing everything right, have nothing to fear once this flush of bad publicity is over. Of course, enforcement is important, but the consumer is the ultimate enforcer, by insisting on knowing exactly what they are buying and eating.
If we can take anything from this sorry saga, let’s use it as an opportunity to remind ourselves of why farming is so vital to all of us on this island.
In producing our food, farmers also manage our countryside, providing the landscapes, wildlife and biodiversity we all take for granted.
The appalling weather we have witnessed in recent months has blighted crops and affected livestock numbers, which means our farmers’ work in bringing food to the table is going to be harder than ever this year.
Add to this the ongoing debate on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, which underpins so much of the UK’s farming activity, and it becomes clear why our farmers need public support now more than ever.