Confusion between government departments hampered the British response to this year’s horse-meat contamination scandal, an audit probe has found.
The British Government has been criticised by the National Audit Office over its handling of the scandal, describing confusion between government departments.
“The January 2013 horse-meat incident has revealed a gap between what citizens expect of the controls over the authenticity of their food, and the effectiveness of those controls in reality,” the head of the office, Amyas Morse, said on Thursday, when releasing a report on its inquiry into food safety and authenticity in the processed meat supply chain.
“The division of responsibilities for food safety and authenticity has created confusion,” Morse said.
“The Government needs to remove this confusion, and improve its understanding of potential food fraud and how intelligence is brought together and shared.”
The report found that, while arrangements for identifying and testing for risks to food safety were relatively mature and effective, similar arrangements for the authenticity of food were not.
The Government failed to identify the possibility of adulteration of beef products with horse-meat, despite indications of heightened risk, the report concluded.
A split in responsibilities for food policy between the Food Standards Agency and two Whitehall departments in 2010 led to confusion among stakeholders about the role of the agency and the agriculture department, Defra, in responding to food authenticity incidents, the report found.
An agency review found that some of their staff and local authorities were confused, during the early stages of the response to the January 2013 incident, about why the agency was taking the lead in investigations.
Local authorities said they continued to be unclear on whom to contact in certain areas of food policy, the report noted.
Local authorities reported 1380 cases of food fraud in 2012 – up by two-thirds since 2010.
The Government recognised that it needed to address weaknesses in its intelligence-gathering and sharing and its understanding of opportunities for fraud throughout the modern food chain, the report said.
The audit office recommended that some resources should be shifted from the inspection of slaughter houses to the checking of the manufacture of processed meat products and the long supply chains involved. This, it noted, would require European agreement.