Heads roll at food safety authority

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The head of Norway’s state regulatory agency in charge of animal- and food safety (Mattilsynet) resigned Friday, in the midst of a rising scandal. Harald Gjein’s resignation comes after state broadcaster NRK revealed an incorrect and seriously flawed report by the state regulator on a fur farmer in Rogaland that has brought the regulator’s credibility into question.

Harald Gjein resigned as head of Norway’s food safety authority Mattilsynet, after its credibilty was called into question over a flawed fur farm inspection report. PHOTO: Mattilsynet

The report comes just as protests continue over the government’s decision, with the support of Parliament, to phase out Norway’s highly controversial fur industry. Years of highly critical reports on how animals like mink and fox were caged and often neglected resulted in the decision to shut down fur-farming in Norway by 2025.

The government plans to carry out the shutdown by compensating the country’s roughly 200 fur farmers. The compensation was initially set at around NOK 325 million and since been raised to NOK 500 million, but calls have persisted for even higher compensation. Fur farmers have complained that the offers they’ve received are far too low, not least when their operations have been passed on for generations and now they need to find new work. “It feels like being thrown out on the street,” one angry farmer told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) earlier this month.

Seriously flawed inspection report
Now many fur farmers and opposition politicians in Parliament are even angrier, after NRK reported on the regulator’s case against Per Olaf Lauvås of Rogaland. His family’s farm was cited by Mattilsynet as guilty of allowing its animals to be undernourished and dehydrated, and suffering from open sores and illness. Among penalties proposed in the report was immediate shutdown of the entire operation.

Lauvås, however, had secretly taped the Mattilsynet inspectors at his farm and could prove that their report was not correct. It was full of factual errors, and even written by somone from the regulatory agency who wasn’t present at the inspection. Mattilsynet later admitted that its portrayal of Lauvås’ fur farm was incorrect, and wrote a new one.

Gjein apologized for the flawed report, but Norway’s new government minister in charge of agriculture and food, Olaug Bollestad, was not satisfied and called for an investigation into how Mattilsynet operates. On Friday the agency issued a press release that Gjein was resigning with immediate effect.

‘Credibility in doubt’
“During the past week, the credibility of Mattilsynet as a state regulatory authority has been brought into doubt, in connection with an inspection of a fur farmer in Rogaland,” Gjein stated. He noted that the agency’s credibility “stands and falls on the public having confidence that inspections, professional guidance and case handling are carried out in a correct fashion.”

Given the background “of this situation,” Gjein went on to state that “I find it correct to resign my position, so that others can lead Mattilsynet’s important work further.”

Gjein, who assumed his top post in June 2011, said he was “proud to have been able to lead my 1,250 colleagues who go to work every single day to ensure that our food is safe and that animals are well off.” He said his resignation was a hard decision to make, but most important now is to restore confdence in the state agency’s authority.

A regional director in southwestern Norway, where Lauvås farm is located, was also stepping down, at least temporarily, along with two leaders in the Southern Rogaland, Sirdal and Flekkefjord division while the state’s internal investigation of the flawed report on Lauvås continues.

Investigation underway
Mattilsynet has regulatory authority over plants, fish, animals, animal care and food in Norway, inspecting everything from farms to restaurants, but is simply called the “Norwegian Food Safety Authority” in English. It’s been active in inspection of livestock operations and fur farms, not least in the Rogaland area, and with good reason, editorialized newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday. The newspaper added, as have many other commentators, that both the industries that come under Mattilsynet’s scrutiny and the public must have full confidence in how the agency carries out its work.

Bollestad had reached the same conclusion, calling its leaders in on the carpet and launching the investigation. Now the opposition Center Party, which has many farmers among its constituents, is demanding a delay in setting compensation for fur farmers who leave the business and wants a police investigation of the faulty report against the farmer in Rogaland. That could in turn delay or even threaten the fur-farming phase-out.

Lauvås himself said he only had asked for an apology. “There are lots of nice folks in Mattilsynet also,” he told NRK, “but now we at least know how some operated.” Bollestad said Gjein himself took the initiative to resign.

Thanked departing director for his service
“I do want to thank him (Gjein) for the job he has done,” Bollestad said. “Mattilsynet is an authority that we must have confidence in, since it handles Norwegian food production and food safety. Then we depend on both confidence, security and a good reputation.”

Both Geir Pollestad, a Member of Parliament for the Center Party and arch defendant of farmers, was still calling for a thorough investigation. “Has this happened to others?” he queried, wondering whether the case against the fur farmer was simply linked to a weakness in the system or part of an attempt to put another fur farmer in a bad light. The head of the farmers’ largest lobbying organization, Norges Bondelag, Lars Petter Bartnes, also expects Mattilsynet to get to the bottom of what happened. “We need credible and professionally strong inspections,”Bartnes told NRK.  “That’s critical for the whole value chain from farmer to consumer.”

Pollestad was renewing calls to halt and/or reverse the pending phase-out of fur farming in Norway, while the opposition Labour Party’s agriculture spokesman wants to delay voting on compensation, to make it higher. Animal rights organization NOAH, which has worked for years to eliminate fur farms in Norway, was resisting any delays, claiming that would postpone implementation of the law lead to more animal suffering.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund