High-profile food scares are only the tip of the iceberg, Trace One research discovers

Martin: lack of consistency in reporting

Martin: lack of consistency in reporting

Product recalls and other food safety incidents reported to and by the Food Standards Agency are merely the tip of the iceberg, according to research performed by Trace One.

While the general public is only aware of food recalls that affect major retailers or have wide-reaching consequences, such as the 2013 horse meat crisis, the agency reported 1,604 incidents in 2012, more than four a day.

These ranged from incorrect labelling on products, to chemical or microbiological contamination, to use of unauthorised ingredients.

Beyond this, a Freedom of Information request to both the FSA and the most populous Local Authorities in the UK, showed a large number of food safety incidents are not reported to the FSA, due to their local nature. Indeed, 40% of Local Authorities surveyed do not even record such incidents: meaning there is no way of knowing the true scale of the issue. As a result, the full picture of potentially contaminated or otherwise unsafe products in the UK is far larger than consumers, retailers or manufacturers might expect.

“Whilst the FSA’s remit is to report all food alerts that occur across the UK, the fact it does not act on local recalls means there are still many incidents that slip under the radar,” said Nick Martin, Senior VP Northern Europe for Trace One.

“In the course of our research there appeared to be little consistency in what actions Local Authorities took, whether actions were reported to the FSA, and whether these were even recorded. For example, a single council in Wales has, over the last two years, acted 63 times to remove unsafe products from sale: none of which have had to be reported to the FSA. While the localised nature of these incidents may make them appear less serious, they still represent a health risk and should be subject to transparency.”

Whilst the majority of incidents reported by the FSA revolved around contamination, whether through microbes, natural chemicals, environmental materials, pesticides or other materials, those limited to local authorities took a greater variety. Incorrect labelling or expired use-by dates accounted for 82% of all reported recalls: however, these were concentrated in a few local authorities. In others there was a broader range of reasons for action: from pest infestations, to contaminated products, to hygiene concerns.  

Martin argues the lack of consistency in recording and reporting actions taken by local authorities makes it harder for consumers to trust food safety issues are being dealt with appropriately.

Government bodies, retailers and manufacturers have a strong duty to protect members of the public: each must act as an essential safety net to ensure that unsafe goods are not passed down the food chain to consumers. Manufacturers and retailers must collaborate to ensure unsafe products never reach shelves; local agencies must ensure that any unsafe goods that do slip through are swiftly identified and, if possible, removed; and the FSA must, as a last resort, ensure that the public is made aware of any potentially dangerous products that do make it as far as the consumer. However, if these parties cannot prove that they are acting in this way then consumer trust will start to erode.

“FSA recalls on their own do not alert consumers, as the sheer scale of the numbers shows: only the attendant publicity and the actions of retailers will make the public aware,” said Martin.

“For example, the 2013 horse meat scandal only produced three recall alerts from the FSA, yet a far larger number of products were pre-emptively removed from the shelves. Consumers cannot be expected to know about and act rationally on every single food recall or alert that happens: instead, they need confidence that their safety is ensured. Not having a standardised way to report, record and analyse food recalls and alerts is unacceptable: whether information is not kept for practical purposes or reasons of commercial sensitivity, the UK needs nation-wide standards to ensure that consumers can be sure that all parties are acting in their best interests: from the FSA, to the town hall, to the individual retailer.”