This weekend Britain is in the grip of a full on food scare. Horse meat has been discovered in several processed beef products, including Tesco burgers and Findus lasagne. We have no way of telling how wide the contagion is at this moment in time, and there are fears that it could be present in school dinners and hospital meals.
Horse meat is not dangerous to eat in and of itself, although it is not yet known if the meat used in the contaminated products contained the horse drug phenylbutazone, which can cause serious blood disorders in humans. The issue here is that we basically have no idea what is in the food that we eat, and therefore cannot be sure if it is safe or not. Although most people are actually OK with eating horse (sales of genuine horse meat have doubled since this scandal broke) imagine what would happen if something else was discovered in our food. Cat for example. I doubt people would be so sanguine then. As with all food scares, uncertainty about which products are trustworthy risks undermining confidence in the whole supply chain.
Faced with this situation Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has given us a master-class in how not to be a Minister. The scandal has been brewing for a couple of weeks now, during which time Mr Paterson was pretty much anonymous. Yesterday, as it became clear that the contagion was much wider than originally thought, questions were asked about the whereabouts of the Minister, and David Cameron expressed his “full confidence” in Mr Paterson, which could be interpreted as a less than gentle reminder that he was expected to deal with this. Whatever the intention, it certainly got the Ministers attention, and he immediately returned to the department, gave a series of TV interviews, and announced his plan of action. Fans of ‘In The Thick Of It’ will probably be able to anticipate the result of this form of crisis management.
Paterson has today held an emergency summit with food retailers and suppliers, and demanded that all processed meat products are tested and the results made available by next Friday. Given that the results of tests on school and hospital foods will not be available until the 8th of April, this timetable looks optimistic to say the least. The Food Standards Agency does not actually have the legal power to force companies to do this, and even if it did experts say that there is not enough laboratory capacity to perform all these tests in one week. It will be very interesting to see what happens if they fail to meet the Ministers demands. My best guess is that by announcing what look like panic measures which are probably impossible to enact, Owen Paterson has just given the story more legs. He may come to regret that.