#horsemeathistory: Food Regulation and Consumer Protection

i. Aim/Vision:

To bring historical research pertaining to Adulteration and Food Law to the notice of those responsible for, and interested in, the regulation of food standards in the UK. In particular, to prove by historical evidence that food policy cannot:

  • a) Focus on health interests only.
  • b) Focus on retailers only.
  • c) Ignore smaller sites of food production and retail.

And thus that food policy should:

  • a) Focus on protecting the consumer from fraudulent activity, as well as health concerns.
  • b) Focus on the producers, as well as retailers, of food
  • c) Monitor both retailers and producers irrespective of the size of their premises.

ii. Key Messages:

  • UK regulatory bodies have often failed to protect food consumers’ interests during economically difficult times. As Jim Phillips and Michael French write: ‘Opposition to regulation on cost grounds emerged after the postwar boom collapsed in 1920.’
  • Historically, the Ministry of Health has been overly preoccupied with public health at the expense of fraud. This resulted in the black market horse meat trade in the postwar rationing period (Mark Roodhouse).
  • The Loch Maree incident of 1922, in which eight people died of botulism, is an example of ‘the danger of allowing trade interests to come before public safety and consumer protection.’
  • As in 1922, problems have often arisen due to regulatory emphasis focusing on the retailers rather than the producers.
  • Furthermore, the Loch Maree incident is an example of the way in which small businesses have often been insufficiently regulated; it is much easier, in practical terms, to focus on large factories and shops.

iii. Policy Context:

  • In the wake of a major horse meat scandal, which began in January 2013 and is on-going, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been vociferously criticized for insufficient testing of beef products.
  • The scandal mainly related to low-end beef products, for example Tesco’s frozen burgers and Findus lasagnes, which were found to contain up to 100% horse meat.
  • There has been much coverage and condemnation surrounding the scandal, from all major news sources, but little productive discussion about future policy-making and reform. Some academics and experts have featured in the media, but not many (if any) historians.
  • The FSA ‘instructed the [food] industry to urgently carry out its own tests on processed beef products’
  • Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) claimed that ‘ultimate responsibility for the integrity of what is sold on their label has to lie with the retailer’, not the producer.

iv. Objectives:

  • 1. To arrange one face-to-face meeting between DEFRA, the FSA and representatives from the food industry, between 1 May 2013 and 30 April 2014. On 9 February 2013 these groups held an emergency meeting. The objective would be to gather together these important players in the presence of relevant historians. Aims:
    • a. To present historical research in order to stimulate discussion.
    • b. To develop this discussion into a forward-thinking policy, one which reforms the regulatory system, rather than just punishes those liable.
    • c. To secure evidence of the impact of historians’ engagement in a policy paper.
    • 2. To secure evidence of the impact of historians’ engagement in at least two media publications by 30 April 2014.
    • 3. To publish at least one new H&P policy paper and one new opinion piece relating to the horse meat scandal and/or food regulation policy by 30 April 2014.
    • 4. To increase media and public awareness of food regulation history through a discussion panel prior to the proposed meeting. Target: 200 mentions of the Twitter #horsemeathistory.

v. Audience:

  • Policy advisers at the Food Standards Agency. Aim to get Catherine Brown, chief executive, to attend the meeting.
  • Civil Servants, relevant policy advisors, working at DEFRA. Aim to get Owen Paterson to attend the meeting.
  • The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development.
  • Relevant specialist journalists, including James Meikle and Matthew Taylor at the Guardian.
  • Academics researching on food regulation history, including Mark Roodhouse, Bee Wilson, and Richard Perren.
  • Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union.

vi. Activities:

  • Organise a historically-informed food regulation discussion panel, open to the public, featuring as many of the aforementioned academic speakers as possible. Invite a representative from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union to speak about the Union’s history with relation to food regulation. Invite journalists from major publications: The Guardian, the Independent, Times Higher Education etc. to attend. Aims:
    • a) Publicise the relevance of history to this area of policy-making. Gather enough media interest to persuade FSA etc. into agreeing to the meeting proposed above (Objective 1.).
    • b) Pool resources and choose which historians and which key areas of research to present at the meeting.
  • Produce a series of posts on the Oxford University Press blog. Contact Mark Roodhouse, whose OUP blog about horse-meat scandals could act as a model and launching pad.
  • Use #horsemeathistory to create a feed using the H&P twitter account. Disseminate information and links to relevant articles. Also, provide a live update of the public discussion via twitter.
  • With agreement of the FSA, DEFRA and food industry representatives, publish historians’ presentations from the meeting and publish a co-authored policy report. This will all provide a resource for policy makers, journalists and the interested public.
  • Encourage and work with historians to adapt their research into H&P policy papers and slide-show presentations for the meeting.

vii. Monitoring and Evaluation – Techniques:

  • Seek written feedback (evaluation forms) from all participants at the end of the meeting. This will aid the design of subsequent events.
  • Produce a critical commentary on proceedings in the meeting, with a focus on how historical information is received.
  • Count: number of mentions of the #; increased number of followers for H&P twitter account; and increased number of hits to H&P website.
  • Web-based searches for relevant historians’ names in media sources.
  • All results will be gathered, analysed and evaluated into a final report. This will collate: critical commentary, co-authored policy report, evaluation forms, media articles and online data, including responses to tweets, blog posts etc.


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