UK and EU regulators need to protect consumers as food supply chains become more complex.
It is over a year since the horse meat scandal, and the government response, at both a UK and EU level, is still a work in progress. Recent media stories about lamb takeaways containing other meats show that meat adulteration is still an issue.
The main reason for meat adulteration is generally seen to be the rapid industrialisation and globalisation of food production. The challenge for those enforcing regulatory regimes is to keep pace with these production techniques and increasingly complex food supply chains.
The Food Safety Act 1990 and related legislation create various offences for selling food that is not safe or does not meet expected standards.
It is an offence:
- To render food injurious to health by adding or removing substances or subjecting food to any process.
- To put unsafe food on the market.
- To advertise, label or present food in a false or misleading way.
Food is deemed to be ‘unsafe’ if it is injurious to health or unfit for human consumption. One of the factors is whether it is ‘unacceptable’ for human consumption due to contamination.
So one of the key questions is whether adulterated meat is unsafe. The Food Standards Agency has found there is nothing about horse meat that makes it more or less safe for human consumption than other meat products, unless the horses have got into the food chain illegally. Even in those cases, the risk presented by the veterinary drug Bute is extremely low.
However, the legislation goes beyond food safety concerns and extends to consumer protection. There are also strict rules around traceability and food labelling. Even if adulterated meat is not injurious to human health, there is a risk of an offence being committed.
As well as prosecution, enforcement officers can inspect and seize suspected food and serve improvement notices setting out steps that must be taken to ensure compliance. The court can also impose prohibition orders, including orders stopping food business owners from managing any food business.
We are just starting to see the first prosecutions to arise out of last year’s scandal and businesses will be keen for advice if any action is threatened against them.
Regulatory and litigation lawyers may also be tasked with advising on product recalls, consumer complaints, claims against suppliers and insurance coverage issues.
In the UK, the Elliott review is investigating whether changes in legislation or enforcement are required, and at an EU level new regulations on origin labelling and traceability are in the pipeline.
It remains to be seen how far legislators will go, but the fallout from the scandal is far from over.
Matt Brown is a trainee at Shoosmiths