Ulster Unionist MLA for East Antrim Roy Beggs has said that the best way to ensure food safety is to buy from a trusted local butcher. During an evidence gathering session by the Stormont Health Committee, Roy questioned Maria Jennings of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on the proposed food hygiene rating scheme legislation:
Mr Beggs: It was touched on earlier that Northern Ireland has a very high level of traceability, perhaps the highest in the world. However, rogue traders and processors, whether in Europe or elsewhere, have put a bit of doubt in some minds at a cost to legitimate businesses. Do you agree that one of the ways of reducing risk factors is to keep the food chain as short as possible and that, to a degree, that means buying from a trusted local butcher?
Ms Jennings: Mr Beggs, we have to look at the whole global food system, and we have to operate with what we have. We have to put checks and controls in place in that system to ensure that food can move around the world in the way that it needs to in order to feed people. To feed Northern Ireland consumers, we need to bring in food from all parts of the world. We work in the European Union to ensure that the border checks are in place for food coming in from third countries, and then there is free movement in the European Union. Those are the systems and controls that are in place, and we work with those controls.
Mr Beggs: Is the highest risk to consumers locally more likely to be imported food, where there is not the degree of traceability that exists with locally produced food? Will you be concentrating your effort on that?
Ms Jennings: A lot of effort is put into controlling imports. The European Union has its own inspectors who go out to third countries to carry out audits of individual processing plants so that those plants are authorised to put food into the European Union and move within the EEC. Those checks are in place, and we work with those. More locally, as I said, vets, meat inspectors and environmental health officers carry out checks daily in our own processing plants and of our retailers and manufacturers. So, there are layers upon layers of controls there that should protect consumers.
Mr Beggs: I have a final question. I understand that, in England, DEFRA had responsibility for the genetic testing of meat, but that was devolved to local councils. I take it that responsibility remains with you, in Northern Ireland. How many such tests were carried out in the past year?
Ms Jennings: When the Food Standards Agency carried out this work across the United Kingdom, we generally carried out UK-wide surveys. In the past, we have looked at salamis, for example, and we have identified horse and donkey meat there; we have looked at different species of fish; and we have looked at rice, the selling of lower quality rice and such things. It is fair to say that, since the responsibility in England moved to DEFRA, there has been a shift in the money and the programme to DEFRA, which means that, when we go to carry out a UK-wide survey now, DEFRA leads on it and we provide top-up funding for that work. For the past couple of years, the focus of the Food Standards Agency has been on food safety issues. We are having those discussions with DEFRA at the moment, and the planned programme will, of course, obviously, shift to this issue.
Mr Beggs: You have not answered my question. Were no tests carried out last year in Northern Ireland?
Ms Jennings: No. There were no tests on speciation carried out in Northern Ireland. Sorry.
Mr Beggs: Do you agree that even some random testing would create a higher level of risk for those trying to dupe the system and to profit at the expense of others?
Ms Jennings: Definitely. This has obviously focused our attention on to that; there is no doubt.