Alyn Smith MEP, Scottish full member of the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, has hailed the passage of a European Parliament report on fraud in the food chain as "an important step" in the process of reforming Europe's food markets to ensure that last year's scandal can never happen again.
A large number of European countries, most prominently the UK and Ireland but also France, Italy, Romania, Sweden and others discovered large quantities of horse meat in a wide range of processed food products marked as beef or pork: Findus UK sold beef lasagne supplied by a French company which was 80-100% horse meat. Additionally, the painkiller phenylbutazone was found in 6 horses out of 206 sampled by the Food Standards Agency and could have ended up in the food chain (phenylbutazone is lethal in large doses). Systematic EU-wide sampling coordinated by the European Commission showed that up to 5% of tested samples had horse DNA.
The report calls for much tougher inspection and enforcement regimes, with Food and Veterinary Office audit focus to include food fraud, a legal obligation for food business operators (FBOs) to report cases, strengthened penalties against fraudsters with fines up to double the economic benefits of the fraud, and "naming and shaming" of convicted fraudulent FBOs.
Significantly, it furthermore demands a greatly boosted system of place of origin labelling, with mandatory place of origin labelling for meat in processed foods (under current rules only meat products themselves are required to be labelled e.g. lamb), and a call for a "local farming and direct sales" label to encourage shorter food chains and more direct interactions between producer and consumer, such as at farmers' markets.
"Scotland is blessed with a superb natural larder packed with some of the best produce in the world. The Scottish Government Food and Drink Strategy, along with the work of Scotland Food and Drink, have done much to promote, advance and protect our agricultural production and have helped to maintain consumer confidence in the wake of the horse meat scandal.
"That crisis was a real wake up call for the integrity and stability of Europe's food production system. Although activity by criminal organisations was clearly the proximate cause, the opportunities for exploitation were clearly made available through the long, convoluted, opaque chains which we as a society have developed in order to procure our food. The news that a frozen lasagne will have reached our supermarkets through half a dozen intermediaries operating in as many countries was a real eye-opener for many, and thus exponentially increases the potential for fraudulent activities: if the revelations have done nothing else, they have at least made us much more aware of the high cost of low prices.
"Therefore, I'm delighted that the European Parliament is taking up the fight for transparency as to where our food comes from, short supply chains and local markets. I make no apology in declaring that sourcing local does not just reduce the potential for fraud, but also has the potential to boost local economies, reduce the carbon footprint of food production and improve rural communities. Judging by the upturn in throughput at local butchers in the wake of the fraud scandal, many in Scotland have come to the same conclusion, and rightly so - Scotland's food and drink sector is an industry we should be proud of.
"Of course we need to take much stronger enforcement actions against fraudulent activity, and this report suggests a number of common sense approaches, such as ensuring that crime does not pay through dissuasive penalties. But I also believe that we need to take the opportunity to reform the whole way we do business with food. This report is a good start."