In praise of… BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme Horse meat special

Listening to this special programme yesterday made me reflect afterwards on my meat inspection training in the mid-1990s when BSE was at its height. I was fortunate to train at two abattoirs. In the large abattoir animals travelled from hundreds of miles around and frequently arrived very poorly, HACCP boxes were ticked after the briefest of visual inspections and line speeds were so quick I never understood how Victorian inspection methods could protect public health! In the smaller abattoir things were much more relaxed, the local animals sometimes had names, I got to know the slaughtermen and I started to learn how to inspect.

Nearly 20 years later the larger abattoir continues to thrive, but the smaller one closed shortly after my training there apparently because bringing it up to the new hygiene standards demanded by legislation was too expensive. With the movement of meat inspection away from environmental health I think students really miss out nowadays; not only because of the skills they can develop as meat inspectors but because of the insights it gives you into the industrialisation of food production and how difficult public health interventions can be in such an environment!

At the time of writing (Monday 11th February) it’s hard to predict where the horsemeat scandal will go next, but it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. The discussions I have heard so far from industry, politicians and civil servants (e.g. ‘this is not about food safety’, ‘this is a labelling issue’, ‘we must restore consumer confidence as soon as possible’) do not inspire me with the confidence that they recognise the many unknowns of this case. Therefore I am indebted to Sheila Dillon and her food programme colleagues for yesterday starting to disentangle the complex webs of the horsemeat scandal and I look forward to their next update.

I hope the horsemeat scandal creates a space for debate amongst public health practitioners and society more generally about the complexity and vulnerability our food chain and what appear to be the failures of the market and regulators to protect our public health.

The programme can be downloaded via the Food Programme’s website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnx3

I also recommend journalist Felicity Lawrence’s writing about the case: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/felicitylawrence

For wider reading about why we are where we are today, engagement with the work of leading environmental health thinker Professor Tim Lang of City University is essential: http://www.city.ac.uk/arts-social-sciences/academic-staff-profiles/professor-tim-lang

With best wishes, Rob

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2 thoughts on “In praise of… BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme Horse meat special

  1. Can I add another observation to this debate and it is one of evidence. When the issue was first reported there was a clear statement that there was no risk. This might be true but it could not be said at that point. The whole regime of meat inspection was to ensure traceability, as Rob highights to combat BSE and its prevalence in animals over 36 months. Since we did know where the horse meat had been introduced, whether it had in fact ever been inspected, I fail to see how anyone can contend that this was risk free.

    I agree with Rob and big is not always beautiful. There are ecological issues as well as safety. The level of food miles increases in a centralised system, as well as risks arising from cross contamination between DNA strands being processed on same lines. Traceability also becomes increasingly difficult to track.

    To my mind food security, something we as EHPs need to focus upon, will become increasingly critical. We have seen it with baby milk, palm oil, wine, and now meat products. We have to think as much about the food, its source, what is sprayed on it, how it is treated, as we do about where it is prepared and retailed.

  2. So much meat in this subject… I mean, raises lots of questions.
    For example:
    # Food standards, hygiene, labelling and safety are inextricably linked – so why continue this standards/hygiene split in UK enforcement?
    # What can we do to encourage a more holistic approach to food issues by EHPs?
    # Are increasingly reduced intervention strategies going to put public health at risk?
    # We’ve had global food economy for centuries (think spice trade) so why is food security such an issue now?
    # Supply chains are complicated – but haven’t they always been?
    # Can we afford to be snobbish about cheap protein?
    # Are UK (or European) food sampling and surveillance practices rigorous enough?
    etc. etc.
    As you suggest Rob, this subject definitely has legs!

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