Ian Thomas Associates

The horsemeat crisis –every food business must protect themselves and their brands

At the time of writing, 13th February 2013, the horsemeat scandal has affected a significant part of the European Union and has severely dented consumer confidence in the food industry.

This is a developing situation and we have moved very quickly from what was initially thought to be a relatively minor labelling issue to what has now been described by EU health commissioner Tonio Borg “as a case of fraudulent misuse of the labelling system for economic gain”.

Although the situation is still under investigation by food regulatory authorities and police forces throughout the European Union this current food crisis must serve as a reminder to all food businesses of the need for constant vigilance in their day to day operations. Food contamination and mislabelling can occur through negligence, inadvertence or, as appears to be the case with horse meat, due the deliberate actions of people for their own purposes.

Any food crisis has the potential for causing significant harm to businesses, their owners and their brands. The food chain can be very long and complex and is therefore susceptible to being infiltrated at any one of several places. This means every food business, whether producer, distributor or retailer is at risk of being caught up in a food crisis that may not be of their own making.

It is essential that all food businesses ensure that they are able to respond quickly and effectively to any product withdrawal or recall. This will involve an immediate review of their crisis management policies, plans and procedures so that they are fully prepared to swing into action whenever and wherever the need arises.

There are likely to be many long term consequences of this crisis for the food industry. More onerous labelling regulations cannot be ruled out and there will be calls for tighter regulation and more inspections. In an attempt to restore confidence in the food industry it is also likely that the regulatory authorities will be under enormous pressure to take enforcement action and bring prosecutions to show that they are doing everything to bring offenders to account. Simon Coveney TD, the Irish Agriculture Minister, has said that systems will be put in place to ensure there is no repeat of this “debacle”.

The horse meat scandal is the first of many product recalls that will take place in 2013. Hopefully not all will affect on an entire industry but each one has the capacity to seriously affect an individual food business.

Understanding legal obligations and knowing how to avoid enforcement action or defend any legal actions is crucial. Ian Thomas is a very experienced food and regulatory lawyer who provides advice, assistance and representation to food businesses at all times, not just during a crisis.

For further information about how we can help your business please contact us at ian@ianthomasassociates.com.

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