Comment from Sunday Herald, 17 February 2013
The possibilities for food fraud today are endless. As well as substituting horsemeat for beef, whiting can be used instead of cod, sea trout instead of salmon, and cheaper varieties of potato instead of the revered King Edward.
Food can be adulterated by adding water to chicken breasts or fruit juices, or mixing coffee husks in with beans, or adding glycerol to wine. Companies can pretend that beef came from Britain instead of South America, label farmed fish as wild and try and pass off conventionally produced food as organic.
All these things have happened. The possibilities for duplicity and misrepresentation go on and on, and a litany of apologies and promises do nothing to assuage public concern. People aren't losing trust in the industrialised, multinational food chain - they have already lost it. Little wonder then that consumers who can afford it are increasingly turning to known local producers.
Whatever we might wish, the international food industry is not going to wither away. It must be policed, and policed hard by tough, well-resourced, independent regulators, rather than by itself, as increasingly seems to be the case.
That's why our revelations today that food safety sampling has dropped by one-third over the last four years, as meat inspectors and environmental health officers have lost their jobs, is particularly disturbing. It only adds to the toxic mix that these reductions in sampling and job losses have come about because of public sector cuts.
Among all the priorities of government, surely ensuring the integrity of the food its citizens eat is one of the highest?
What has happened must stop and be reversed. We don't need fewer inspections and less sampling, we need more; and we need to make sure anyone found in breach of standards is punished to the full extent of the law. There is no reason why anyone passing off horse as beef should not be found guilty of fraud and spend time behind bars.
As it stands, Scottish ministers have already promised a new food safety agency, though not yet set out exactly how it will operate. They should make sure it is an effective watchdog with real teeth that minimises the risk of future food scandals.
That means ministers may need to face down the powerful food industry - not something at which they have previously excelled. But if the horsemeat debacle teaches us anything, it is that the consumer has to come first.