By Tim Montgomerie
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Owen Paterson is missing his daughter's 21st birthday today and will, instead, be meeting regulators, retailers and food suppliers for a summit meeting to reflect on and investigate the horsemeat scandal.
The Secretary of State for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs called the meeting after telling the BBC that "either criminal activity or gross negligence" appeared responsible for the scandal. Although there are no current suggestions that anyone's health is in danger Mr Paterson is nonetheless angry at consumers being sold lies. He wants to use today's summit to establish whether these incidents are isolated or the tip of an iceberg. Some fear that unscrupulous suppliers across Europe may have been cheating supermarkets and consumers by abusing a system that appears to be based on trust rather than inspection. He has told Downing Street that he will be taking the lead in investigating this matter after concerns that the independent Food Standards Agency was a little too pedestrian in pace.
We might be at the beginning of a period when food prices and food quality becomes a big public issue. Labour's Mary Creagh – Shadow DEFRA Secretary – seems to think so and has been recognised as The Sun's hero of the week for criss-crossing the media, speaking up for worried shoppers. At the heart of the issue is that food is forecast to consume a larger share of household budgets over the next few years as food prices rise and family incomes remain flat. The temptation, fears Tory MP Laura Sandys, is that budget supermarkets will still offer families a 99p cottage pie but that that cottage pie won't have such good ingredients in it – or, worse, the supply chain will become corrupted in the process of delivering that 99p price tag.
Laura Sandys (recently one of ConHome's Little Guy Conservatism heroes because of her focus on consumer empowerment) wants a consumer champion – perhaps inside DEFRA. At the moment she worries that ministers and departmental officials may be too focused on producer interests. She also wants to see food (as well as finance) on the national curriculum. She believes that schools have a big role to play in ensuring the next generation become more intelligent purchasers of supermarket and financial products.
Owen Paterson has only been in his brief for six months and has faced big controversies over the badger cull, shale gas, Ash dieback, flooding defences and now this. DEFRA is becoming an important brief but he has a record for gripping previous issues and I'm sure he'll do so again. Enlisting Laura Sandys' insights will help him to succeed.