How should the meat food chain be regulated?


By Prof. Michael Winter

It has become customary for critics of the UK food system to attack the weakness and fragmentation of regulatory arrangements: too many government departments with inadequately demarcated responsibilities, compounded by differences between different parts of the union and the weakness of local government. The usual standard-bearers for this critique might be termed the ‘RRs’ = the ‘resilience radicals’ or even, some might argue, ‘revolutionaries’. For the RRs, resilience is taken to include, amongst other things, a fundamental shift to agro-ecological or organic farming systems, a much more plant-based diet, shorter local food chains, and a decentralised regulatory or governance system that really is first and foremost about nutrition and health. Such radicalism is not new but certainly has gathered pace in the context of COVID, Brexit and the National Food Strategy. But it is not only those who favour sweeping change across the food system as a whole who are voicing concerns. In February, three leading meat trade bodies – the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and the British Poultry Council (BPC) – produced a joint report on how food chains are regulated: Food Chain Oversight: An Integrated Model. In many ways their verdict is just as damning as that of the RRs:

‘The UK’s food chain is overseen by a number of different agencies, bodies, authorities and organisations: FSA, DEFRA, PHE, TS, RPA, LA, VMD, Port Health, APHA, etc. No one ‘agency’ has overall responsibility across the whole food chain from farm to port. This approach leads to duplicative bureaucracy, inefficiencies in delivery, confused intelligence gathering, and a decoupling of the food chain resulting in an increased risk of food fraud, hampering enforcement and a waste of resource.’

‘The overlap between the differing agencies involved in the delivering of consumer protective measures along with animal welfare controls provides significant opportunity for streamlining of process and a more joined-up approach to policy formation and delivery. The food chain is fundamentally linked from the point of production to the point of consumption therefore it is entirely logical that the supervision, oversight, enforcement, control, audit and regulation of this production chain should be linked and delivered as one over-arching body.’

 The co-author of the report, Jason Aldiss, holds out the prospect of:

‘… benefits for all, from producers to consumers. Lower costs, lower environmental impacts and a better, more appropriate use of resources resulting in the UK having a world-class regulatory body, fit for purpose and helping drive the country forward in our new post EU trading market.’

As someone with limited experience of the details of the meat processing sector, the specific points that lie beneath the headlines are of considerable interest. For example, the report highlights the lack of join up in the food inspection regime with related inefficiencies of resource use and duplication of effort. Although the report does not spell it out, I assume the authors had in mind the combined efforts of environmental health officers, trading standards officers, official veterinarians, meat hygiene inspectors, food examiners, and port health officers. There may well be others I’m not aware of. The report suggests that instead:

 ‘multi-functioning inspectors should deliver a wide range of inspection processes at each input into the food chain and operate from one central command unit sharing knowledge, intelligence, data and good practice. The current regime operates in closed silos distinct and separate from each other…’

The report also highlights how the current inspection processes are highly manual relying on ‘out-dated and old-fashioned methodologies’, which do not reflect today’s food safety risk factors. It all seems very clear, but when I read a report like this, clearly authoritative but also from a particular perspective (these two things are not necessarily contradictory but need to be kept in mind), I often turn to the academic literature for another view. In this case I stumbled across a paper with a characteristic academic title: ‘Practices of attention, possibilities for care: Making situations matter in food safety inspection’. Written by Stephanie Lavau and Nick Bingham (Sociological Review, 65, pp20-35, July 2017), it takes a rather different approach. As the authors explain, they ‘followed the work of inspection from farm to fork, passing through places such as farms, livestock markets, slaughterhouses, processing factories, cold stores, air and sea ports, restaurants, retail outlets, and food testing laboratories. Over a period of two years and across twenty sites, we work shadowed inspectors with responsibility for delivering official controls of food in the UK.’ They found inspectors felt constrained and troubled by the regulatory changes and streamlining already underway, with some inspectors feeling that their particular expertise was already stretched too thinly across different aspects of food businesses: ‘Amid such rapid and profound change, our concern is that something important about the practices of food safety inspection is in danger of being lost, with very real consequences for the quality of its outcomes in making complex and potentially lethal situations matter.’

So, we have two very different takes on regulation in the meat sector, one from the vantage point of meat processors, the other from inspectors, albeit filtered through the lens of academic sociology.  Neither position is directly related to COVID but one obvious lesson from COVID has been a heightening of both surveillance and risk as important societal issues. My sense is that, although at one level, regulation and inspection in the meat sector seems a highly technical issue, there are real issues to grapple with here and they are important if we are to have efficient and profitable food businesses alongside consumer confidence in both the safety of food and high animal welfare standards. ‘Building back better’ in the food sector needs some of the zeal of the RRs alongside the practical insights of industry itself, leavened with academic insights.

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