The horsemeat-tainted beef scandal that came to light in January exposed weaknesses in government controls of the food supply chain, and showed the complexity of the supply chain, according to the report. Since the end of August, the Food Standards Agency has tested 24,480 samples from 17 product lines and found 47 positive tests for horse DNA, the NAO said.
“Six months on, inquiries are still ongoing and the original source of the adulteration has not been identified,” the NAO said in its audit. “Since the incident began there have been five arrests as part of the UK investigation and Europol are continuing their investigations.”
Additionally, the NAO revealed that 1,380 new cases of fraud were recorded on the national food fraud database in 2012, a two-thirds increase since 2009.
In its review, the NAO found that splitting responsibilities for food policy in England has caused confusion among agencies tasked with ensuring food safety and food authenticity. The UK government transferred responsibilities for food authenticity and composition policy (where not related to food safety), and for nutritional labeling from the Food Standards Agency to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department of Health, respectively. Enforcement responsibilities remained with local authorities.
An FSA review found that some of its own staff and local authorities were confused, during the early stages of the response to the horsemeat problem, about which department was leading the investigation. "Local authorities said they continue to be unclear on whom to contact, or get information from, in certain areas of food policy," the NAO said.
The NAO audit also found that UK food-safety authorities had not tested for possible horsemeat contamination since 2003. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland decided to test for adulterated beef products on concerns that retail prices were not reflecting a substantial increase in beef prices. Additionally, the agency found that global prices for horsemeat had fallen, thus, there were incentives to commit food fraud.
The NAO found that the FSA did not have a complete picture of all public testing, and that the amount of public testing by private food businesses was substantial, but food safety authorities did not know the amount, nature or results of the tests.