Northern Ireland’s agricultural department is considering adoption of a ‘horizon-scanning’ system as a pro-active defence measure against food chain crises such as the horsemeat scandal.
The system would allow any stakeholders in the food chain to anonymously report areas of concern or malpractice, and authorities to subsequently target research or introduce new controls as necessary.
Northern Irish Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill met with Martin Higgins, chief executive of Dublin-based Safefood, on February 20 to discuss initiatives aimed at improving ‘horizon scanning’ within the food chain.
Safefood is an all-Ireland public body established under the British-Irish Agreement with a remit to promote awareness and knowledge of food safety and nutrition issues, including scientific co-operation and laboratory linkages and provision of independent scientific advice.
“I have always supported Safefood’s idea of a system where all those involved at all stages of the food chain can report areas of concern, unusual findings or malpractice,” said O’Neill, speaking after the meeting. “It is important that government can take advantage of the knowledge and practical experience of those involved in the industry, alongside other sources of information, to scan the horizon for emerging issues, and target research and new measures accordingly.
“Especially in light of the current controversy surrounding Equine DNA being found in food products, I believe such an intervention would help bring serious concerns to the attention of the relevant authorities at an early stage. I plan to raise this matter further with ministerial colleagues to see if such a system can be agreed to be implemented in the time ahead.”
Robert Huey, deputy chief veterinary officer in Northern Ireland and a member of Safefood’s Scientific Advisory Committee, said the body had “identified there was a problem for people with knowledge of potential risks putting this information into the public domain for fear it could affect their business or that they might risk prosecution.”
A similar system is already implemented by the local animal feed industry, he said.