A few more emerging horse meat themes…

It’s been fascinating to see how horse meat ‘events’ continue to shape political agendas in the UK and across Europe. Highlights for me include (beware my ‘Guardianista’ tendencies):

There’s so much to discuss, but a few themes are at the forefront of my mind:

How can we move beyond ‘good and bad apples’ and “WE NEED MORE EHOs”?

I think the way in which blame is being continually passed around highlights the political vulnerabilities of the parties involved. From our own perspectives, I hope this scandal provides an opportunity for us to look in our environmental health mirrors and reflect on our contributions to why we are where we are today.

One way could be to move beyond characterisations of businesses as mostly good apples (in need of education) with a few bad apples (who need sanctioning). Two published food poisoning related studies (Mullen et al., 2002; Jones et al, 2008) suggest that EHPs are not very good at differentiating the good apples from the bad and need to work on improving their models of risk assessment. Further, horse meat events in my opinion demonstrate the need to recognise that businesses and regulators are complex and have what academics Ayres and Braithwaite call ‘multiple selves’ that are constantly changing. For them businesses “are bundles of contradictory commitments to values of economic rationality, law abidingness, and business responsibility”, whilst regulators can be “nice guys or tough guys, self-interested or public-spirited, professional or unprofessional, diligent or lazy, intelligent or confused” (Ayres and Braithwaite, 1992:31).

Reflecting on this last point (and at risk of committing professional suicide) my heart agrees with Prof. Mike Lean’s statement during the Radio 4 ‘You and Yours debate’ last week that ‘we need more EHOs’, but my critical head says ‘we need more environmental health professionals doing effective public health work’. I’m actually disappointed that the horse meat scandal is being used to beat the ‘more EHOs’ drum as the next round of cuts to government environmental health services (e.g. HSE, FSA, DEFRA, local authorities, etc) continues to bite. These cuts are years, arguably decades, in the making, surely we should have been developing better political ‘traction’ (as I think they call it) to support (and improve) our public health interventions over those decades?

Meanwhile I’m assaulted daily with offers of new environmental health products and services and conferences sponsored by ‘good apples’ or ‘outsourcing experts’. Time will tell if the decisions and models shaped by these ‘good apples’ contributed to the horse meat scandal, but if EH professionals regard the marketisation of our worlds as problematic, where is the counter narrative? As a founder member of the EHRNet this theme is probably where I start banging my own drum about why we need a research culture!!

Beware the ‘evidence’

Words like ‘evidence’ and ‘fact’ are cropping up constantly in media reports and press releases. As we suggest in our eBook (see webpage above) we urge observers to tune their ‘warning antennae’ to alert every time they see or hear such terms then, if possible, examine the references or challenge the speaker about what they mean by evidence? If there are no references, or the publication is poorly referenced, or the references are based on single studies or personal experiences or have been carried out by those with vested interests they might not have declared – treat the ‘evidence’ with extreme caution!

We need more knowledge of the ‘big pictures’ of all this!

Lastly, one reason I liked the Radio 4 programme I referred to in my last blog post was that it attempted to start disentangling the complexity of the horse meat scandal. My colleague Alan Page and ‘food inspector’ below (and some of the journalists above) begin to discuss some of the wider issues in their replies to my last post, but despite being a bit more informed about the food industry than the Clapham omnibus man I still sometimes struggle to comprehend horse meat events. I hope that in time food policy experts like Prof. Tim Lang will be given more disentangling opportunities. Without a better understanding of these biggest of pictures I fear the horse meat scandal could become another wasted opportunity to secure a better public health for us all.

With best wishes, Rob

References

Ayres, I. and J. Braithwaite, (1992) Responsive Regulation Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK

Jones, S., S. Parry, S. O’Brien and S. Palmer (2008) Are Staff Management Practices and Inspection Risk Ratings Associated with Foodborne Disease Outbreaks in the Catering Industry in England and Wales? Journal of Food Protection Vol. 71 (3) pp. 550-557

Mullen, L., J. Cowden, D. Cowden and R. Wong (2002) An evaluation of the risk assessment method used by Environmental Health Officers when inspecting food businesses International Journal of Environmental Health Research Vol. 12 pp. 255-260

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