Honesty best policy for food industry

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Source of Article:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/7778092.stm


By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI Consumer Affairs Correspondent


Could it be that the dioxin scare is over?

It certainly looks that way. What a lot has happened since the story first broke last Saturday.

Recalling all Irish pork was a huge decision for the authorities south of the border. For Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith it must have seemed like having to order a nuclear attack on the very industry he is trying to promote.

But less than a week on and the decision to go public and warn consumers that something potentially serious was up could reap a consumer confidence dividend.

On the face of it dioxin pork could only be bad, but the episode has shown the Irish food industry is real about food safety even where it demands painful disclosure and economic loss.

Sceptics may dislike much of the marketing spin about Ireland being sold as the 'food island'. All that green environmental imagery can seem a bit over the top.

And yet the way in which the Irish authorities have been able to identify the dioxin problem, recall product and restrict farms which had received the contaminated feed, was impressive.

The clean green image would mean very little if the authorities had not been able to trace the path of the contaminated feed and move to protect consumers.

But in the event the Irish proved to have the science and the forensic systems to deal with the issue.

Imagine if the authorities had not able to trace every farm. The situation today would be very different.

Consumers may have felt scared initially, but just a few days on and they now know that the food industry has the capacity to deal with this sort of thing.

If the food safety authorities in Europe could not be convinced that all the contaminated feed had been accounted for, then the pork and beef industry could have been facing meltdown at this stage.

It's not by chance the farming and food industry on both sides of the border invest heavily in quality assurance. For farmers, auction markets, meat plants and feed mills, it means a lot of form filling.

The payback for all of that is that when dioxins got into the food chain, the authorities were able to isolate the contaminated product, get the the system cleared out and then convince the European Food Safety Authority to give it the green light to start operating again.

In some senses it's actually a more telling marketing campaign than all the hype about how good Irish food is.

Consumers may have felt scared initially, but just a few days on and they now know that the food industry has the capacity to deal with this sort of thing.

We tell our children that telling the truth is the best policy and that by admitting a failing it's possible then to make a fresh start and for people to know that you have been honest about a problem.


That certainly has worked this week for the Irish food industry.

Yes, it will take a little time to win back all of the markets lost, but in the end consumer confidence will be strengthened by the forensic capability which has been built into the food industry.

A cynic, of course, would say that no amount of testing and tracing can stop incidents like this happening again.

But the point of quality assurance and the monitoring of the food chain is that mistakes can happen but a good system can allow the problem to be identified and then dealt with.

The whole point is that consumers can now see that the authorities have a way of investigating the full extent of a contamination incident.

The result is that rumour and suspicion are replaced with accurate information meaning that consumers know what is going on.

One result of all this may be that farmers will be less inclined to substitute cheaper fillers for quality assured feed

That said the dioxin issue highlights areas where the farming industry could do better.

The farms which bought the relatively low-cost feed from the Carlow waste processing plant did leave themselves open to some degree of risk.

True, they couldn't have known the feed was contaminated and in that sense they were innocent victims of the situation.

The farmers, though, could have avoided the problem if they had bought all of their livestock rations from local feed mills which have strict quality assurance systems in place.

Feed mills test all the raw materials arriving at their gate, monitor the entire production process and are able to guarantee the feed delivered to the farm is wholesome.

And here we arrive at the issue of money. The farmers are under pressure because of rising costs and retailers constantly pushing the food industry for discounts.

It is because of that pressure that they in turn are tempted to look for cheaper feed.

I suspect that one outcome of this dioxin scare is that any farmer who wants to buy feed from a waste processor will need a guarantee that it is free of all contaminants.

That would require constant quality control at waste processing plants and that would add a lot of cost.

The relatively cheap filler might then not look just so cheap.

One result of all this may be that farmers will be less inclined to substitute cheaper fillers for quality assured feed.




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