6 February 2013

The Dubious Quality of Regulatory Horseflesh

If the most enjoyable stories are those that right themselves and where the villains receive their just deserts then the sad career if Tim Smith has generated such a story. Here he is in 2005, explaining a profits warning for dairy giant Arla UK, of which he was Chief Executive. He did not explain how the corporate was part of an industry that put pressure on milk suppliers, driving families farms to the wall for the sake of increasing shareholder value. Arla Foods, the Danish parent company which is a farmer co-operative, for this or for other reasons appear to have decided they no longer needed Mr Smith's services and in April 2007 he left the company.

His appointment to head the Food Standards Agency took effect from 1 April 2008 (a hint there perhaps), although already in March 2006 was welcomed by The Grocer which noted that the FSA had previously regarded food industry appointments with suspicion and that his understanding of the 'the world of grey' would be particularly valuable. Grey food, grey morals, greyness between political and corporate power? One is left to guess what Warburton's boss Jonathan - he of the friendly personalised adverts - could possibly have meant by this. Perhaps he meant this sort of thing: Tim Smith in August 2010 assuaging our concerns about the inclusion of cloned animals flesh in meat products.

But I am losing my thread and we are close to the poetic finale of this narrative. For our hero Tim Smith left the FSA last autumn to move to Tesco, previous customer of Arla, and where he would now take the role of Technical Director, with a considerable responsibility for food safety. On his appointment, which he took up just last month, he stated his opinion that Tesco and the FSA shared the 'principle of doing the right thing by consumers'. With a great demonstration of ethical flair he had left his job at the FSA a month before his position at Tesco was announced, to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest.

And so to the shocking revelation last month that one-third of the meat protein in Tesco value burgers was actually horsemeat. Normally the revolving door would have meant that the person who had failed to properly regulate the quality of low-grade burgers was long gone before the grossness was revealed. But in this case Tim Smith walked into precisely the wrong job, leading to a rare and therefore all the more enjoyable video of him taking responsibility and looking surprisingly ashamed of himself.  Interestingly, he fails to mention his former role at the FSA.

The question left open is the obvious one: who is checking up on the quality of the food sold in our supermarkets? When the relationships between politicians, regulators and the food industry is so close, who is protecting the interests of consumers? The Food Standards Agency was set up in 2001 in the wake of the salmonella and BSE scandals and as part of Labour's arm's-length regulatory strategy. Under John, now Lord, Krebs it took a conservative line, with Krebs also becoming notorious for attacking the quality of organic food. Their response to the horsemeat crisis? To meet with suppliers to discuss the problem.

This is the second FSA to utterly fail to protect the public. As in the case of the Financial Services Authority the reasons are clear: an ideological obsession with the right of business to control its destiny and the obligation to have free markets. The result of financial deregulation was the crisis that bankrupted the British economy. The result of deregulation of the food industry is likely to be slower and more insidious. Horsemeat in burgers is revolting but not especially threatening to our health. But what we can know about the levels of dioxins, heavy metals and other contaminants that might be finding their way into the food eaten by the poor in this country?

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