Although not a direct safety issue, the recent horse meat controversy has drawn attention, once again, to what goes on behind the scenes within our global food industry. Shocking many, expected by others and leaving many consumers feeling vulnerable, it is not the first time that we have experienced such a food ‘scandal’. BSE, foot and mouth, ecoli outbreaks and dioxin scares rear their ugly heads at various times, often making consumers think more carefully about what they are putting in their mouths – even if this is only for a short time.
In the everyday, most of us prefer to get on with eating our dinners than thinking about the whole range of possible consequences that our meal presents. So who is keeping an eye out for us when natural instinct (and for reasons of sanity!) often makes us throw a blind eye to what our food contains? One such body in Ireland is the FSAI (the Food Safety Authority of Ireland). Having recently entered the spotlight as the body to uncover the horse meat controversy, the FSAI gained much public and media attention in recent months. However, it has in fact been around for over a decade, monitoring and attempting to ensure safe food.
A timely paper from TCD Geography, published in The Geographical Journal, reflects on the impact and role of this key institution upon which many of us unknowingly rely. Drawing on the inside track, the paper does this through exploring the opinions and experiences of those who work with the FSAI on a regular basis – the actors of the food industry and related policy fields. This included speaking with anyone from caterers to retailers, politicians to activists, and consumer representatives to past and previous FSAI employees.
Relating to PlanetGeogBlog and published within The Geographical Journal, there is of course a distinct geography to all of this, with it being important to realise that the FSAI does not act in isolation to make food safe in Ireland.
Instead it works within a complex web of food risk governing actors that exist from local to global scales. Drawing on this reality, the paper casts a critical eye over the multitude of actors and bodies involved in getting safe food to your plate. With this complex web in mind, one might question: are too many cooks spoiling the broth?
Not only a question of having too many cooks, but what are the motives, methods and drivers behind each of these cooks? After all, and especially in light of the recent horse meat ‘controversy’, many want to know that their chefs are working with the best of intentions, to a proven ability and with customer interests at heart rather than the profits of the restaurant. Focusing on the head chef in the Irish food risk governance kitchen, the FSAI, the published paper addresses these questions, examining the complex power relations between governing actors and the competing interests behind the work of the FSAI. It highlights the persistence of both economic and consumer health interests within the FSAI as it attempts to find a balance between protecting Ireland’s good food reputation and industry profits, and ensuring that consumers are not misled or endangered. Representing the proverbial pig in the middle, such industry interests do not necessarily represent a bad thing and, indeed, are probably quite natural given the importance of agriculture and the related food industry in Ireland. These tensions can however create conflict when a risk event occurs and certainly alter perceptions of FSAI success across stakeholder groups, as the paper examines.
Overall, providing a timely reflection on the FSAI to date, the paper finishes on a positive note concerning the need for the FSAI. Europe is renowned as having one of safest food chains in the world, with Ireland enjoying a particularly positive food reputation. However, when you scratch the surface, what else might gallop into view? It is for this reason that we must recognise the importance of having reliable, trustworthy and hardworking food risk governing bodies. While improvements could be made to the FSAI structure and food risk governance in Ireland more broadly, the need for their existence is indisputable in the current global, intensified food chain. While too many inappropriately motivated chefs may indeed spoil the broth, it is equally no good to pull a Ramsay and tell them all to get out of the kitchen! The battle for a safe food supply continues…
Authored by: Laura Devaney, Postdoctoral Researcher, TCD Geography.