Question Time

In this section of the blog we want to take time to just discuss some of the issues that were brought up in the Question Time of that week and discuss them.

Headed up by David Dimbleby, the panel was made up of Maria Miller, Mary Creagh, Susan Kramer, George Gallaway and Fraser Nelson. The question chosen to focus on was:

Who is to blame for the horsemeat scandal? Is it profit driven supermarkets, incompetent food industry regulators or consumers demanding ever-cheaper food? 

While giving the background on this story seems almost redundant given how much media attention it’s receiving, it’s still useful to understand what is happening to our food at this current moment. This is not the first food scandal to hit the headlines with rumoured contamination having been prolific in Ireland previously, but 2013 has seen the rise of a crisis as more and more stories emerge of contaminated food products. The scandal broke in mid-January following a food plant in Ireland being found with food with a trace of equine DNA. Since this, several supermarkets, schools, and catering companies have withdrawn products after finding, or whilst waiting to see if there is, horse DNA in their food products. Despite this news story first having broken over a month ago, it is still no clearer how the DNA entered the food chain, although signs point to Romanian food plants and suppliers as one key entry point. So who is to blame?

First to start was Mary Creagh whose first point was to clarify she wasn’t blaming those on a low-income who did opt for the cheaper food options. This raises a significant point. It seems that consumers are becoming ever more driven to find the cheapest deal they can get with websites such as Compare the Market, and adverts such as those run by Asda promoting just how much cheaper they were than Tesco this week becoming more prolific. To bring in an example from my friends – a group of students, whilst at a friend’s house bought a bag of 30 chicken nuggets for a ridiculously cheap price. The chicken inside was slightly molten when cooked and tasted vaguely of plastic, but that didn’t stop some of my friends from eating them, proving that price – not nutritional value – is often what is behind the motives of today’s over-stretched families, especially with government plans to cut child benefits and the introduction of the “spare bedroom tax”. Creagh believes that the economic market pushes for the cheapest possible options and stressed the importance of correct labelling. While this may have started as a story which was somewhat of a farce with jokes such as “my doctor told me to watch what I eat, so I bought a ticket to the Grand National” it is clear that it has now become a national concern.

When asked if it was the fault of the Labour government for abolishing random checks on meat in 2003 the panel took differing stances. Nelson believes it is the fault of the food industry, and the company supplying the food rather than that of the Labour government. Galloway took a different approach however, saying that the “back-end of the pantomime horse had to be government”. He clarified that the two non-governmental options in the initial question are unelected. It falls to government therefore to “protect us”. He stated that not only had Labour let the country down, but the Conservative government had gotten rid of 700 Food Standards officers, begging the question – who is regulating our food? and what has gone into it in the last 10 years? When David Dimbleby directed the question to Maria Miller of the Conservatives, she seemed reluctant to give a direct answer on whether the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was responsible for what has happened. When finally pushed for an answer she said she believed the manufacturers were to blame and not the government. Kramer of the Liberal Democrats followed this by saying she felt that the complexity of the current food chain meant that Galloway’s claim of 700 FSA officers being cut might not even have made a real difference and that the system of food production needs to be reviewed. Later Creagh made it clear that she felt it was the role of the manufacturer and of the retailer, contrasting Galloway’s view entirely.

Following this, Dimbleby moved the debate onto questions from the audience, leading to Creagh’s defence of the Labour government saying that contrary to an audience member’s claims, they did not end random testing in 2003. Instead Labour had simply not had evidence of a requirement for it in the years following this date. One interesting point this raises from a political stance is just how far does government only address issues when thet become a problem? The age old stance of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” may hold some relevance but with the economic crisis currently playing out and the current government seemingly suffering from a crisis-a-minute at the moment with issues like the drought, the floods and “pasty-gate” of 2012 alone prompting the question “is the government leaving it too late to try and solve their problems?” In contrast to this though, the recent outcry against the Conservative and Lib Dems’ plans to build a new high-speed railway, and reform the education system arguably show that in the public’s eyes there are better things, and more urgent crises at hand to deal with.

A key point that was raised in this debate was the ever conflicting issue of the European Union. Nelson spoke out saying that this was a crime that happened in France under regulations out of the government’s hands, because the rules come from the EU. In this respects you couldn’t therefore blame the British government for what was taking place. Creagh retailiated by saying that the Conservative government had had the option to label food with where it had come from under EU law but had blocked it, until that is, the food safety crisis had come into play. This highlights the current issue of how willing are the Euro-sceptics in government to follow rules set out by the EU, and just how much control does the EU have? It is thought that 80% of new laws come from the EU which can leave people wondering just how useful and effective is the legislative branch? DEFRA – a government department in charge of food in Britiain saw criticism from Creagh at this point in the debate, showing that Labour and the Conservatives do still maintain their partisanship. This government body has according to Creagh “broken up the system” and she clearly thinks the Conservative party are to blame.

This debate didn’t clear up the issue of who is to blame for the horse meat scandal. If anything, it creates more questions. Regardless of who is to blame, why have we not found the source of the contamination yet? How safe is our food? What are we eating? Dimbleby and Fraser both brought up the fact that horse in itself is safe to eat. The Chief Medical Officer said “a person would have to eat 500-600 100% horse-meat burgers a day to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose of Bute”, but as Creagh said “If it’s coming in from criminals then I doubt very much whether they followed proper food hygiene standards on the way in”. Between manufacturers, suppliers, consumers of politicians it’s hard to pick a single source, but it can be assumed that this scandal is by no means close to simply “blowing over”.

Ellie Clifford, Politics A2 Student.

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