RSC press release
Yesterday's announcement by Tesco's group technical director to a committee of MPs that the supermarket will introduce DNA testing across its meat products is welcome news, say the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Association of Public Analysts.
But this commitment to a new standard for ensuring supermarket meat product quality is long overdue and highlights a serious problem with the current system for the enforcement of food safety and standards in the UK.
Public Analysts are the highly skilled scientists who form the front line of the UK's public protection and enforcement service in terms of chemical analysis and related testing. The Royal Society of Chemistry has been training and assessing Public Analysts since the 1860s, through the administration of the MChemA qualification that is the requirement for a scientist to become eligible for appointment as a Public Analyst.
The recent food incident in which Tesco customers, and others, have been unwittingly consuming burgers containing horse meat has highlighted the need for more rigorous enforcement of food safety standards in the UK. But Britain's Public Analysts, who are at the forefront of ensuring consumer safety and confidence in our food products, are facing a struggle against lack of investment in facilities and skilled analytical scientists.
President of the APA and RSC Fellow, Liz Moran said: "Every local authority is required to appoint a Public Analyst under the Food Safety Act 1990.
"Thirty years ago, we had more than 40 Public Analyst laboratories operating across the UK. But the squeeze on local authority funding over the years means that we have only 18 laboratories left now. The number of appointed Public Analysts in the UK has also fallen, from more than 100 in 1956 to just over 30 currently appointed - a fall of more than 60 per cent.
"This means that Public Analysts are appointed to many more than one authority."
She continued: "Since well before the current economic crisis, funding and resources for food sampling and analysis have been progressively falling. This means that the number of products that can be tested has fallen rapidly, leading to a risk-based system in the UK where only products in which there is a known problem are tested.
"This makes it very unlikely that hidden contaminants - like the horse DNA in Tesco burgers discovered by analysts in Ireland, or Sudan dyes in chilli powder that were uncovered in Italy - will be found in food products sold in the UK.
"The APA is trying to work with the Food Standars Agency (FSA) to ensure standards are maintained. The FSA has made extra funding available in recent years to test food imported into the UK from outside the EU, but we have been warning them for years that resources have slipped to a level where an incident like this horse meat issue was likely to happen in products produced in the EU.
"Although the risk to public health is probably very low in an incident like horse meat being found in beef burgers, these types of incidents can be very damaging to consumer confidence. Not only that, but they could also potentially damage the UK food industry, which the government is trying to grow to boost the economy."
She concluded: "As Public Analysts, we would like to see a more centrally-coordinated and planned approach to food safety and standards in the UK, rather than the current haphazard and reactive 'system' that has led us to the current situation, where consumers don't even know how long they could have been eating horse meat without realising.
"We would like to see proper funding for the official control labs out of which the Public Analysts operate, to ensure continuity and stability of the food safety enforcement system for the future. Little or no investment is being made in the development of new analytical techniques and government funding for authenticity research has also been suspended. If all the expertise and lab resources in this area disappear, it will be impossible to get them back."
Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Dr Robert Parker said: "Tesco's commitment to DNA testing their meat products as standard is a welcome move towards ensuring high food standards are met for their customers.
"But proper investment in laboratories and qualified, highly-skilled scientists like the Public Analysts could have avoided this situation altogether, by allowing the capacity for thorough food product testing across the board.
"We would call on the government to re-examine the current situation with regards to funding for food safety and standards in the UK. We cannot afford to lose consumer confidence in our supermarkets, which make an important contribution to UK business and our economy."