How EU regulation has prevented UK horse meat action

DAVID Cameron’s enthusiasm for the Single Market must be taking a knock, as the horse meat scandal gallops on. It is, after all, one of the fundamental four freedoms of the Single Market – the free movement of goods – that prohibits environment secretary Owen Paterson from banning imports of suspect meat.

But the EU has exercised its influence in other ways. All matters relating to food safety are an exclusive EU “competence”. Not only does this mean that food law is written in Brussels, but UK authorities are prevented from making their own laws to fill the gaps without the permission of the European Commission.

The specific instrument that constrains our government is regulation (EC) No 178/2002. It requires “food business operators” – farms, factories and retailers – to have the “primary legal responsibility for ensuring food safety”. It warns that, if responsibility is assumed by national regulators, “disparities are liable to create barriers to trade and distort competition between food business operators in different member states”.

As Paterson has rightly said, the system is “paper-based, and too much is taken on trust”. And this lies at the heart of the problem. The EU regulations, although loved by consultants and bureaucrats, remove much of the physical checking from the system, and put in its place a complex chain of documents that must accompany every part of the production process.

Lord Haskins, former chairman of Northern Foods, has complained that “everybody fills in forms to say they are doing the right thing, but they don’t actually look at the factory to see what is happening inside”. Haskins didn’t identify the root cause, but others have been less reticent. A senior consultant in the food industry told me that the effect of the EU system is to “hammer the good guys” while the crooks find a way around it.

The trouble is that the system assumes that food producers are honest. But, as Paterson has pointed out, this scandal “is a criminal action, substituting one material for another”. The longer-term problem is that the EU system is not capable of detecting food fraud – an industry reckoned by the FBI and the World Customs Organisation to be worth $49bn (£31.6bn) a year to its perpetrators.

Another issue is conceptual. Regulators glibly talk of the food supply “chain”. But it’s actually an extraordinary network – a kaleidoscope of factories and suppliers, all working together. And while access can be controlled and processes supervised in a simple linear chain, the network, with its multiple entry points, is not amenable to the EU control model. The assumption on which the controls are based is flawed.

Paterson would like more rigorous and random testing – a hands-on approach to food control. But this flies in the face of EU dogma, and that is why he has had to get on a plane to Brussels. A sympathetic commissioner has acceded to requests for permission to require more testing, but it is the Commission calling the shots. And that is no way to run a national food safety system.

Richard AE North is co-author with Christopher Booker of Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming. He blogs at www.eureferendum.com

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