THE Horrible Histories series used to be a firm favourite in the Watson household. We gasped at the grossness of foods which were mixed with substances ranging from the minging to the noxious by unscrupulous producers.

In 1851, Dr Arthur Hill Hassall became the first scientist to detect and measure food fraud with the systematic use of the microscope. Hassall studied more than 3000 foods and found 65% were adulterated. His shocking findings were published by Thomas Wakley, an English surgeon and a founder of The Lancet medical journal.

In an act of editorial and personal bravery, Wakley named and shamed the worst perpetrators of food fraud, a seismic act described thus by one contemporary: “A gun suddenly fired into a rookery could not cause a greater commotion than did the publication of the names of dishonest tradesmen.”

READ MORE: Sustaining Scotland’s £16bn global food and drink sector

In 1860, Westminster passed the Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act. The following decades saw various amendments until, in 1990, the UK finally adopted the EU’s high standards with the Food Safety Act.

Roll forward a few very short years and the UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023 threatens to abandon European food standards completely in the Brexit bonfire of EU regulations due on the self-imposed deadline of December 31, 2023.

In addition to the threat to human and animal health, there is significant concern at the real prospect of untraceable, unsustainable, low-quality imports undermining Scotland’s farmers whose world-renowned full-life farm-assured Scotch beef is reared with animal welfare and good environmental practices at the fore.

Chris Elliott, professor of food safety at the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University, Belfast, said: “The Westminster Government is selling out our food and farming standards for the sake of wider deals, like financial services to other nations.”

EU rules mean any “third country”, which the UK now is, can only export foods into the bloc which meet its high standards.

“Not for EU” labels have begun to appear on food produced for local consumption as part of the Windsor Agreement – part of an attempt to find a solution to the very real risk Brexit poses to peace on the island of Ireland.

One serious concern our producers have is that people may wonder if this new label means local food and drink is produced to a lower standard and is “not fit” for the EU.

Desperate for trade deals, the UK Government has announced that beef and poultry meats from Brazil no longer need the enhanced testing or certification put in place after the Carne Fraca scandal. In 2017, this Brazilian federal police investigation – Operation Weak Flesh in English – exposed a nationwide fraud, with food inspectors certifying rotten meat as fresh, laboratories falsifying test results and politicians – including the president – accused of taking bribes to overlook criminal dealings.

More than 400 notifications of salmonella were reported from nations around the world, with 80% of the alerts coming from the EU. Tainted meat included produce contaminated with acids and cardboard.

Elliott said: “There is huge potential for rotten meat containing a large number of different risks, from diseases such as salmonella and E. coli to banned growth promoters and other chemical agents.

“People who cheat tend to be very good at it. This was corruption at the very highest of levels. The Brazilian industry was frequently audited by big businesses from China and the EU and they didn’t find the fraud.

“The most astute criminals in the world wouldn’t get caught out by an audit of the kind the UK Government has carried out. It isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.”

According to the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Brazilian authorities have made “significant” progress. Auditors for Defra inspected a small number of facilities in Brazil and, while highlighting areas of hygiene and slaughterhouse practice – and food labelling which sounds alarm bells for many – exports to the UK are resuming without enhanced checks.

I spoke to a Scottish farmer who, until Covid hit, was a frequent visitor to Brazil, with an export and advisory service providing beef cattle semen, Scottish genes being highly sought after in the southern states.

He asked for his name to be withheld but told me: “The abattoir system causes me concerns.

Animals coming out of deforested areas are retagged to hide their origins. I think the Defra advisers were being shown the facilities on a good day. If they didn’t even go into Amazonia, what were they looking at? It doesn’t sound like they were looking very hard.”

Food Standards Scotland has called for evidence from stakeholders in Scotland to inform a report it is producing for the UK Government’s Department for Business and Trade. Its Scottish Food Crime and Incident Unit (SFCIU) has launched a Food Crime Risk Profiling Tool which allows companies to assess their vulnerabilities to criminality. 

READ MORE: Brexit, honey, and how the quality we took as standard has vanished

As the UK Government continues its slash and burn approach to the safety of imported food and drink, that tool might become a vital asset as Scotland’s food and drink sector works to keep our local food safe to eat and to maintain our global reputation for the highest of standards.

Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign The Food Standards Scotland call for evidence, which closes on September 10, can be found HERE – and you can also find a link to it on the online version of this article