Blog: Horse meat Food Standards Agency budget cuts

Chris Mercer | 17 January 2013

The horse meat story highlights how reliant regulatory authorities are on the private sector to police its own food supply chain. Spare a thought, then, for the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) shrinking budget.

Several Members of the UK Parliament, and the UK's main opposition party as a whole, have questioned why the horse meat-laced beef burgers were not picked up sooner and why the FSA had to rely on routine sampling by its counterpart body in Ireland to raise the alarm.

It's an impossible question in many ways, because we don't yet know how long this has been going on and also because, quite rightly, Ireland's food officials argue that the findings actually underscore the importance of routine testing - which did spot the problem.

Still, in assessing wider implications, it's useful to note the budgetary pressure on UK FSA.

In its annual report for the year to the end of March 2012, its now ex-CEO, Tim Smith, wrote a reminder that the watchdog is committed to a 33% drop in real-terms spending up to the 2014/15 financial year.

The cuts began following the Coalition Government's 2010 spending review.

Smith, who is this week leading Tesco's crisis management strategy after leaving FSA to be the retailer's global technical director in September last year, added: "By the end of 2011/12, against the 2010/11 baseline budget of GBP118m, costs have been reduced by GBP27m.

"This represents cash savings of GBP8m (16%) in administration and GBP19m (28%) in programme expenditure. The savings have been achieved through central Government controls on marketing and consultancy and through our own internal efficiencies." Staff numbers were down by 13%. 

In addition to this, the FSA had to allocate significant resources to food safety work around the London Olympics last year.

Plus, the cuts at FSA need to be combined with financial pressure on local councils, which bear the brunt of fieldwork in terms of spotting food safety, hygiene risk and mislabelling.

All of which could further reduce the power of the public regulator to spot problems, at the same time as putting ever-greater emphasis on the supply chain to police itself.

"This is an illustration of how food systems work on trust," said professor Tim Lang, of City University London's Food Policy Centre, yesterday. Has the trust been spread too thin?


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