Science - September 12, 2013

‘Without extra monitoring nothing will change’

Text:
Albert Sikkema

Why do food producers mess around? ‘Because the risk of getting caught is very small,’

The VION abattoir is cheating with the Better Life label for pork, claims TV programme Zembla. Meanwhile, a recent study reveals that inspections of abattoirs are woefully inadequate. Why do food producers mess around? ‘Because the risk of getting caught is very small,’ says Esther van Asselt of RIKILT. She is doing research on the main causes of cheating with food.

What are the main causes?

‘There are 11 factors that play a role. The key one is the cost-benefit calculation: what do you gain by cheating and what fines might you incur? The risk of getting caught play a big role: your estimate of your chances of being found out in the course of an inspection. The government has made swingeing cuts to the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) in recent years. This means far fewer inspections in abattoirs. The fewer inspectors there are, the smaller the chance of bringing violations to light. Even the acceptance of regulations and the degree of peer control are important factors in cheating.’

And damage to your reputation?

‘Certainly, and the NVWA plays on that: they publish violations increasingly often on the internet. That is why I am amazed that there has been cheating at VION, a market leader in the Netherlands. Reputation is very important to a big company, in this case the image that VION wants to deliver better quality with Better Life meat and not just be competitive price-wise.’

How do you solve the problems?

‘Without extra monitoring nothing will change. I would expand the NVWA if I was in charge. I also think the inspectors should rotate more in the different abattoirs so that the inspections depend less on one person.’ 

Are there sectors where it is going well?

‘RIKILT recently checked the origins of a small sample of organic eggs and they turned out all to be genuinely organic. So the monitoring system seems to work better in the Dutch egg sector.’