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