Food of the Nation
Joanna Blythman on the Errington Cheese case – and the wider implications for small-scale food producers and Scottish food culture. This article was first published in the Bella Caledonia print edition, available monthly as a supplement of The National.
Errington cheese has become a cause célebre for small food companies throughout Scotland. The case has triggered the foundation of the Committee for the Defence of Artisan Food to “support and defend small businesses and artisans producing real, healthy, small-scale foods against any arbitrary, unreasonable, disproportionate actions by food and/or public health authorities”. If you’re not sure what’s been happening, here’s the executive summary.
Food Standards Scotland (FSS), a new public body set up in 2015 to ensure food safety, is adamant that cheeses made by the distinguished Lanarkshire-based Errington company were “the most likely source” of the E.coli 0157 infection that poisoned up to 26 people and killed one in the late summer of 2016. It has issued an order that effectively stops sales of all batches of the company’s cheese.
The Errington company strongly disputes that its cheeses caused the outbreak. Actalia, a state-of-the-art specialist lab in this field that tested batches implicated by FSS, has concluded that the bacteria present lacked the necessary genes to make them poisonous. Emeritus Professor Hugh Pennington, the UK’s leading authority on E.coli O157 food poisoning, the bacteriologist who led two major public enquiries into outbreaks of this type, has also said that Food Standards Scotland has “no microbiological evidence” to link Errington cheese to the Scottish outbreak.
How can this dispute be resolved? Given the grave charges FSS has levelled, and the disputed interpretation of laboratory test results, you might expect that the Errington family would have a formal means of appeal. But there is no way for an accused producer to challenge the ordinances of FSS, however draconian, because it has been set up without any appeals process. The only option left to companies that stand accused is to take court action. To date, the Erringtons have had three ‘wins’ in the Court of Session but spent over £100,000 on legal costs and lost upwards of £300k in sales revenue. Remarkable public support for the family has been expressed in the form of £34,500 of donations towards its legal defence, but few small companies would have the means or determination to take on the FSS.
FSS is “a non-ministerial office part of the Scottish Administration, alongside, but separate from, the Scottish Government”. It is mainly funded by Scottish taxpayers’ money, but it seems to be accountable only to its handpicked board. Ministers can intervene if FSS commits an offence, but are not obliged to do so. Everyone appreciates that FSS needs strong powers to protect public health, but can it be right that it acts not only as prosecutor but also as judge and jury?
Feeling mounts that that the bureaucracy known as the ‘food police’ does not deal evenhandedly with small and large companies. Last summer, over 200 people were made ill by E. coli 0157 on bags of washed salad leaves sold in supermarkets; two of them died. But neither FSS nor the Food Standards Agency in England has taken any action against the companies that sold these lethal products.
FSS takes its lead on strategy from the Food Standards Agency, and its new regime allows big companies to audit their own safety protocols, explicitly using models developed by Tesco, the company that sold us burgers with horse meat. This stated intention of this quasi-self-regulation is “freeing up” custodians of food safety to focus on smaller “rogue operators”. Just last month it emerged that one in four slaughterhouses in England and Wales are failing to take basic hygiene precautions to stop contaminated meat reaching butchers and supermarkets- who knows if Scotland is any better?- yet the FSA is considering relaxing requirements so that slaughterhouses deemed “compliant” will get a full audit only once every three years.
The Errington case has had a chilling effect on Scotland’s artisan food community. Cheesemakers have begun pasteurising their products to avoid the attentions of FSS. It insists that raw (unpasteurised) milk cheese is high risk, a non-science-based prejudice resoundingly debunked by the US Food and Drug Administration. It tested 1,606 raw milk cheeses last year and found less than one per cent contaminated; a very favourable comparison with other types of food we eat every day.
Many small food companies in Scotland now fear an FSS knock at the door, a guilty until proven innocent charge with no means of redress other than financially ruinous legal action. In the past Scottish ministers have uncritically backed Scotland’s food exports, such as farmed salmon, while ignoring the fledgling artisan food sector at home. Now they see images of small-scale producers as a handy way to add value to the generic Scottish food brand and talk up the concept of Scotland as a ‘good food nation”. Meanwhile our real food heroes are struggling with the imposition of an industrial food system, wrapped up in the language of health protection.