Scottish Government rethink needed over school meals

Yesterday in Parliament I opened for Scottish Labour on the Food Policy debate calling for the Scottish Government to rethink how they award school meals contracts.

The horsemeat scandal has raised many questions that the Scottish Government still need to answer not least around the issue of school meals. We will probably never know how much horsemeat was in the food chain prior to the breakout of the scandal or how long the adulteration of food had been taking place.

Previously the Cabinet Secretary told Parliament that food and drink contracts are awarded with a balance between price and quality. However it has since came out that the national procurement contract for school meals was awarded with price weighted three times as much as quality and we now know that school meals cost as low as £1.68.

It has since been revealed that the Scotland Excel contract for school catering is awarding a weighting of 65 per cent to price compared with 20 per cent to quality. Cost is therefore given more than three times greater weighting than quality. That is not a balance. Was the cabinet secretary aware of the 65:20 ratio weighting when he made the statement to Parliament? Does he agree that it would have been better to have greater clarity for members and parents?

It has also been announced that the average cost of school meals across Scotland is as low as £1.68 in certain areas. For some children their school dinner is their only meal of the day. For that reason it is vital that the lunch they eat is healthy, nutritious and exactly as described.

Previously I have held debates on the Fife Diet manifesto in the hope to start a discussion on our relationship with food; unfortunately it has taken a food crisis to bring us to this point.

Scotland does produce some of the world’s finest food and drink and that industry is a vital part of our economy, that however does not mask the reality that is a rise in food banks, demand for food parcels and one in six children go to bed hungry each night.

Below you can find a video of yesterday’s debate along with a copy of my speech moving our motion.


Taken from the Scottish Parliament Official Report: 

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): In September I was pleased to bring to the Parliament a members’ business debate on the Fife diet manifesto. I hoped to start or encourage discussion about our relationship with food, how we eat and how we grow and trade food. The need for such discussion has, if anything, intensified in the wake of recent food scandals, and it is unfortunate that it has needed a crisis to bring us to this point.

I doubt that any member disagrees with the cabinet secretary when he says that Scotland produces some of the world’s finest food and that our food and drink industry is a vital part of the Scottish economy. However, although we recognise the contribution of our farming sector and our fishermen and although we welcome initiatives that promote the best of what Scotland has to offer, the stark reality is that food banks are on the rise, the demand for food parcels has doubled and, according to Save the Children, one in six children goes to bed hungry every night.

In the debate in September, members discussed a food sector that is dominated by a few companies. In recent weeks, we have seen how such companies influence the food chain. The horsemeat scandal magnified the issue, implicating large companies that many people considered to be reputable, safe and trustworthy, such as Findus, Birds Eye, Tesco and Asda.

It is right that we challenge supermarkets about their supply chains and that we identify the need for more European Union action on labelling. However, the Scottish Government has responsibility for regulation and implementation in Scotland, and recent events force us to ask whether our system is robust enough to be able to restore consumers’ confidence and trust. The restoration of trust would benefit industry as well as consumers.

We await final results from DNA testing and, given the weekly reports of a new company or product being implicated in relation to food fraud, it seems that we have not yet resolved the problem. It is important that we ask the hard questions. We can acknowledge the strong approach to traceability in Scottish farming and the positives of our food sector, but we cannot be complacent.

Since the cabinet secretary’s statement on the horsemeat scandal, we have learned that two large catering companies, Brakes and Sodexo, which supply the public sector, have been supplying adulterated meat products. Questions about who supplied the companies with those products remain unanswered. Has the cabinet secretary been told who supplied the meat? If so, will he inform Parliament and consumers? If we are to aim for a transparent food chain and full traceability, we need to know where the processed meat originated. If we are to restore consumer confidence, we must ensure that all information is available and that there is full traceability to where the horsemeat originated.

In his statement to the Parliament, the cabinet secretary told us that food and drink contracts are awarded with regard to a balance between price and quality. We were told that quality is vital in the awarding of a contract and that the lowest price will not necessarily win the contract.

It has since been revealed that the Scotland Excel contract for school catering is awarding a weighting of 65 per cent to price compared with 20 per cent to quality. Cost is therefore given more than three times greater weighting than quality. That is not a balance. Was the cabinet secretary aware of the 65:20 ratio weighting when he made the statement to Parliament? Does he agree that it would have been better to have greater clarity for members and parents?

Recently, it was announced that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment would join the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in hosting a school meals summit. We now know that the average cost for a school meal is as low as £1.68. Although we can point towards local authorities such as East Ayrshire Council and its focus on local food sourcing, it is evident that local authorities have been encouraged towards national procurement contracts as a means to deliver best value.

Parents and carers should be able to send their children to school in confidence that the lunch that they eat is healthy, nutritious and exactly as described. For some children across Scotland, the school dinner is their only meal of the day. Transparency, traceability and quality must be higher on the agenda. We look forward to hearing more from the cabinet secretary on the outcomes of the recent summit.

We will probably never know how much horsemeat was in the food chain prior to the breakout of the scandal or how long the adulteration of food had been taking place. It has been clear throughout that the complexity of the supply chains and the relationships between companies have been difficult for people to understand. If the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had not found traces of horsemeat DNA in beefburgers on 15 January, there is every chance that the recall of contaminated products would not be taking place.

The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals believes that there are 70,000 horses unaccounted for in Northern Ireland. Through the close working of the USPCA and the Scottish SPCA, we know that Scottish ports have been used in the transportation of maltreated horses with fake passports. Was the cabinet secretary aware of the conviction and subsequent fine of a horse trader from Northern Ireland in November 2012 at Stranraer sheriff court for transporting maltreated horses with no or fake passports? In the current circumstances, that recent conviction is concerning. Did any information sharing take place on that conviction? Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we can perhaps now recognise that there is a greater need for agencies to share information. Sometimes the connections are not easy to identify.

A national debate started because of the horsemeat scandal, but that has grown into a much wider examination of food standards. Waitrose withdrew a product that was contaminated with pork at its Shettleston plant, which is a major concern for halal customers. There have also been more recent reports that banned mechanically separated meat is being used in the UK to count towards meat content. Only last weekend, questions were raised about the reliability and accuracy of meat dish labelling in restaurants.

Although many of the cases are about mislabelling, there are also public health concerns. George Fairgrieve, the food safety adviser at the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland, recently said:

“A worrying impact of the reduction in the number of inspections being carried out is that the opportunity for fraudulent activity increases and law-abiding traders are disadvantaged …. There are other vital areas of public health that must also be considered, for example preventing or dealing with outbreaks of E-coli O157 and Legionella.”

The latest revelations show once again that it is the average customer who is being let down.

The FSA Scotland’s consultation launch last week was welcome. We must take that as an opportunity to review what is working and what needs to be improved.

Rob Gibson (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP): Does the member agree that cuts in the FSA—the cuts emanated from the previous Labour Government in London and the coalition Government has made further cuts—have made it more difficult for testing to take place, and that that affects people as much in Scotland as it does in the rest of the UK?

Claire Baker: Since 2008, under the Scottish National Party’s watch, we have seen a reduction in the number of meat inspectors and environmental health officers. Under the Scottish Government, cuts have been passed down to local authorities. We see the pressures that they face and, if we work in a light-touch regulatory system, those are seen as easy areas to make reductions.

Last week my colleague, Dr Simpson, asked questions about the FSA’s funding. Although commitments were given on the stability of FSA funding, the new body will have additional responsibilities that will need to be fully supported.

To go back to Rob Gibson’s comments, the debate should give us the opportunity to ask whether we have things right and to recognise where there are mistakes in the current system. Regardless of where those mistakes emanate from, the debate gives us a chance to ask whether we have the regulatory system right and whether we are delivering the best interests of the consumer.

A recent Unison Scotland report raises concerns about the drop in food sampling by a third, the reduction of meat inspectors by 50 per cent and the drop in the number of environmental health officers in local authorities. Some 56 per cent of environmental health officers say that their teams have had major cuts. A further 10 per cent describe cuts as severe and one member said:

“We have not submitted any samples for food in ten months!”

The issue is not only the reduction in staff numbers but the way in which the system operates. Random testing, unannounced visits and a system for whistleblowing are needed if we are to have integrity in the system.

A combination of lighter-touch regulation and financial pressures has resulted in fewer checks and balances. Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling described the risks:

“Declines in meat inspector numbers and local authority food safety officers, along with reduced food sampling, must contribute to a weakening of public health standards and the possibility of criminal abuses in the food system.”

Of course, I recognise the FSA’s work in recent weeks and the additional inspections that have been carried out. However, those are all after the event and I imagine that, even if there had been any problems, the premises would have got their houses in order for preannounced visits. Given what we now know, we need a robust assessment of whether the system provides us with confidence.

Food is a complex issue. The Parliament has been bold in other areas of public health, but our food policy is defined primarily by export levels and quality products. Those are both positive outcomes, but our food policy must work for everyone in Scotland. It is important for our economy, our health and addressing inequalities.

The Government motion does not address the challenges that we face in relation to food, the growing inequality around food and the crisis that has engulfed the sector throughout Europe. Those are the matters that the Parliament needs to address.

I move amendment S4M-05892.3, to leave out from “welcomes” to “policy and” and insert:

“supports the promotion of local produce and sourcing while recognising the need for affordability, particularly as the demand on food banks rises; notes the recent food scandal, including the adulteration of products with horsemeat, which has affected products sold throughout Scotland and, in learning lessons from this, believes that a robust regulatory regime is necessary to ensure the highest standard of food labelling and food safety to restore consumer confidence and trust; expresses concern that a school in Scotland was supplied with adulterated food through a national procurement contract; calls on the Scottish Government to outline what action it will take following the school meals summit; highlights the recent members’ survey by Unison that raises concerns over staff cuts, reductions in food sampling and the future of the meat inspection service and calls on the Scottish Government to outline its response to this; recognises the progress that has been made through the national food and drink policy but believes that there is no room for complacency as it”.

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