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Horsemeat (Supermarket Products)

Volume 556: debated on Thursday 17 January 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister if he will give a response to the finding of horsemeat in supermarket meat products.

This is a very important and extremely serious issue. Consumers should have full confidence that food is exactly what it says on the label. There are strict rules requiring products to be labelled accurately.

The Food Standards Agency is urgently investigating how a number of beef products on sale in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland were found to contain horse and pig meat. Twenty-seven beefburger products were analysed, with 10 of the 27 products, or 37%, testing positive for horse DNA and 23, or 85%, testing positive for pig DNA. In nine of the 10 beefburger samples, horse DNA was found at very low levels. In one sample from Tesco, the level of horse DNA indicated that horsemeat was present and accounted for approximately 29% of the total meat content of the burger.

Yesterday the agency met representatives from the food industry from all parts of the UK. Industry representatives confirmed the existing processes that they follow to ensure that the products that reach consumers are of the highest standard. These include quality controls in place at all stages of the food chain. They also set out the actions that they have already taken in response to this incident.

The FSA has now set out a four-point plan for its investigation, which it will implement in conjunction with Government Departments, local authorities and the food industry. The first point is to continue the urgent review of the traceability of the food products identified in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland survey. The retailers and the UK processor named in the survey have been asked to provide comprehensive information on the findings by the end of Friday 18 January.

The second point is to explore further, in conjunction with the FSAI, the methodology used for the survey, to understand more clearly the factors that may have led to the low-level cases of cross-contamination. The third is to consider, with relevant local authorities and the FSAI, whether any legal action will be appropriate following the investigation. The fourth is to work with my Department, the devolved rural affairs Departments and local authorities on a UK-wide study of food authenticity in processed meat products.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but perhaps he could have made a statement to the House yesterday, rather than have to respond to an urgent question today.

There is understandable public anger that supermarkets have been selling beefburgers and other products containing horsemeat and pig DNA. Consumers who avoid pork for religious reasons will be upset that they may have unwittingly eaten it, and eating horse is a strong cultural taboo in the United Kingdom. It is not illegal to sell horsemeat, but it is illegal not to label it correctly. Customers must have the confidence that the food they buy is correctly labelled, legal and safe.

The UK is part of a global food supply chain. The food industry lobbies vigorously for a light-touch regulatory system from Government. Testing, tracking and tracing ingredients is expensive, but not testing them will cost retailers, processors, British farmers and consumers much more.

This is not just about the supermarkets. The adulteration scandal raises serious questions for the Government to answer about how we as a nation regulate our food. First, the adulteration was detected in Ireland, not the United Kingdom. Why was it not picked up here? Will the Minister consider introducing DNA testing of meat, as happens in Ireland, to reassure consumers that they are actually getting what they pay for?

In 2010, the Minister’s Government split the responsibility for food labelling between three Government Departments: the Department of Health is responsible for dietary and nutritional labelling, and the Food Standards Agency is responsible for allergen labelling, but the 25 staff and the budget responsible for the compositional labelling has been transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Is that not an absurd situation, and will the Minister now review the system that he has created for food labelling in this country? How many of those 25 staff are still employed by DEFRA on those issues, and why was no national system put in place at that time to audit labelling and composition to protect consumers from this type of fraud?

The FSA inquiry will test the robustness of supermarket audit chains. How confident is the Minister that they will meet Government standards? Has the loss of 700 trading standards officers in three years made this type of consumer fraud more widespread and less likely to be detected? Is the Minister confident that the FSA’s Meat Hygiene Service can be cut by £12 million over the comprehensive spending review period without its ability to detect breaches of the law or tackle a disease outbreak being affected? These invisible regulatory services protect our consumers and our food industry and allow the industry to export all over the world.

Horses are killed for meat in this country, but there are dozens of different types of horse passport and the system is a mess. Will the Minister look at the system for horse passports?

The coalition agreement stated:

“We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact.”

On the evidence of the past few days, the Minister still has quite a way to go.

Let us be clear: the hon. Lady is right to say that consumers have a right to expect that the food they eat is what it says on the label. The cases that were picked up in Ireland are a serious breach of that principle. That is why we are taking the measures that we are taking.

The hon. Lady was completely wrong, however, in what she said about responsibility for labelling. Let us be absolutely clear: the responsibility for policy on labelling lies with the most appropriate Department, but the responsibility for checking the content of food lies with the Food Standards Agency—which, of course, is the responsibility of the Department of Health—and only the Food Standards Agency. It is the body charged with that responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand the difference between a policy responsibility and implementation. It is precisely because of that difference that we split it—to make sure that implementation was with the body charged with that duty.

I believe that the Food Standards Agency carries out its duties in a responsible and professional way. It takes a risk-based approach to testing, based on intelligence. It is right to do so, because that is how it gets the most effective results.

The hon. Lady asked about trading standards officers. Of course these officers have a duty to their local authorities and to the people in their area in relation to the standards that traders employ in that area, but they are not a responsibility of central Government. Local government will take the decisions on what are the appropriate levels.

The hon. Lady seems to think that there is some difficulty with horse passports. I simply do not think that that is the case. I would happily set out the difference between the route for horses going to slaughter and the routes for others.

May I make one final point that is absolutely essential? It is important that neither the hon. Lady nor anyone else in this House talks down the British food industry at a time when the standards in that industry are very high. That something has been discovered in Ireland that is serious and may lead to criminal proceedings does not undermine the serious efforts that are taken by retailers, processors and producers in this country to ensure traceability and the standard of the food that is available to consumers. She should not put that at risk by making unguarded comments.

Order. Notwithstanding the importance and urgency of this matter, I remind the House that business questions are to follow and that we then have two heavily subscribed debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. I will not be able to call everybody as I usually wish to do, but to maximise the number of contributors, I appeal to colleagues for single, short supplementary questions and to the Minister for appropriately pithy replies.

The Minister has to answer the question why this problem was picked up not in this country but in Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to explain what the role of DEFRA is in food safety and where the cross-contamination occurred? I understood that all checks on imported meat, in which we understand the cross-contamination was found, occur at the point of entry. Will he confirm what checks are conducted on meat imports?

Let me make it very clear, as I have already said, that food safety is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. I have no reason to suppose that it does not do an extremely good job. We have a robust screening process with a network of food safety organisations. I see nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that we collaborate successfully with food standards agencies in other countries, because this is a European trade. The meat in question almost certainly came not from the UK but from a third country, to be processed in Ireland. It is not surprising, therefore, that the UK authorities would not have picked that up. However, we are investigating fully and there may well be criminal prosecutions as a consequence.

I have to tell the Minister that he is striking a very ill-judged tone. Where is the Secretary of State? Will these retailers be prosecuted? Was it not total folly to remove any responsibility for food safety or standards from the independent Food Standards Agency to his Department?

I have already explained that we have not done that. It is the policy on food labelling, which is considered at Agriculture Council, that is within DEFRA. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman’s other comments require a reply.

At a time when commodity prices are very high, food adulteration is likely to become a bigger problem. When we have high-priced beef and—as I understand it—low-priced horsemeat, some unscrupulous food processors are likely to take advantage. Will the Minister therefore ensure that when commodity prices are high throughout the food chain, the Food Standards Agency has responsible processes in place to ensure that adulteration cannot happen in this country, and that British food maintains its high status?

We certainly need to do that—that is one of the things that is in train. I have said that the FSA operates on the basis of intelligence—it will continue to do so, because it is important that we find where adulteration takes place. However, it is important to say that manufacturers and retailers have a responsibility to establish very clearly the provenance of the food they supply. Most retailers and processers in this country do an extremely good job of exactly that, but when the system falls down, we must investigate and take appropriate action.

People trust brands such as Tesco to have precisely sourced their supply. The Minister rightly said that it is not illegal to sell horsemeat in this country, but he also rightly said that it is illegal to sell horsemeat if it is not properly labelled as such. What steps have been taken to prosecute Tesco and others for their failure to label properly the food they were supplying to their customers?

I am so grateful to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for his advice.

The investigations will precede the prosecution process. That is the way we do things in this country. We investigate first and take prosecutions to court if it is appropriate to do so. I do not think—[Interruption.]

Order. I understand the strength of feeling on the matter and the considerable expertise of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), but I would look to him ordinarily to behave in a statesman-like manner, and he fell short of the standard on that occasion. He must calm himself. Let us hear the answer.

As I was saying, if prosecutions are required, they will of course take place, either in this country or in the Republic of Ireland as appropriate. However, it is important to gather evidence before mounting a prosecution.

Although I welcome the fact that Tesco has today widely advertised an apology, does the Minister share my disgust on hearing the news yesterday that such a profitable and large British organisation could have let down consumers so very badly? Should not Tesco go way beyond that advert to rebuild trust with its customers and prove to us what it will do about this situation?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point. I am impressed at the speed with which Tesco has responded to what is clearly both a very embarrassing situation and a potentially damaging one. It is essential that retailers and processors rebuild trust in the products available in this country, and that the Government do whatever we can to support that. Only on that basis can we have a successful trade.

Food manufacturing is an important part of the British economy and employs a lot of people in my constituency. The shadow Secretary of State is not undermining the industry by bringing those issues to the House; she is safeguarding its future by allowing people to have confidence in it. The Minister needs to tone down the rhetoric, tell us that you are on top of this issue, and let the British public know that they can have confidence in the regulatory system for which you are responsible.

I have set out exactly what the FSA is doing in response to the immediate problem. The point I am trying to make is this: yes, this is probably an example of criminality—we must wait and see—but it has been detected and is being dealt with. It is quite wrong to extrapolate from that and say, “This is common across the whole of the food industry.” That would be a mistake, and it would undermine an important industry.

There are a finite number of abattoirs, slaughter houses and renderers both here and in the Republic of Ireland, so must it not be possible, in fairly short order, to discover where the horsemeat entered the food chain and react accordingly?

Of course, the first responsibility for that lies with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which is carrying out investigations and we are assisting with them as far as possible. I think we will quickly identify where the meat came from and discover whether it was falsely labelled at the point of origin, which I suspect may be the case.

Is not the problem fragmentation, split responsibility, enforcement, the role of trading standards officers and cuts to local government? Has the Minister had a meeting a Cabinet level, across all Departments, to get a policy that is fit for purpose?

As I have already said, I do not accept that there is any difficulty with split responsibilities. The responsibility for food safety lies entirely with the Food Standards Agency.

In this country, there are robust rules to separate the processing of beef and horse meat. Is that not the case in Ireland?

That will be the subject of the investigations being carried out. The low-level contamination suggests that it may not have been through deliberate falsification of labelling. It may well be that it is simply cross-contamination by error, but I am sure that the Irish authorities will look carefully at this. We are co-operating with them as far as we can, and we are very eager to know the answer.

The Minister said, “It’s not my fault” and puts the blame back on the Food Standards Agency. He has already made cuts and is proposing £11 million more. Will he stop those cuts in order to protect the vulnerable people in Britain from having food they should not have?

I know that it is a convenient fiction, but I can honestly say that I am not personally responsible for having mislabelled horsemeat in the Republic of Ireland. I am confident that the FSA is doing a very good job in this country and will continue to do so.

There are suggestions that the future of the red tractor mark may be at threat. The red tractor mark guarantees the high quality of UK produce. Is this issue not a sign that we should be backing such schemes and increasing their use in the future?

Producer-led and processor-led quality assurance schemes are a valuable tool for consumers, enabling them to know exactly the provenance of what they are eating, and the welfare conditions under which the animals, in the case of meat, have been kept. That is to be recommended to the industry and the consumer.

This scandal illustrates the failure of one of our largest companies to ensure that its supply chain reflects the values it purports to uphold. I sponsored the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill as a ten-minute rule Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) is the promoter of its Second Reading on Friday. It provides a tool for the companies themselves to ensure that their supply chains reflect the values they purport to uphold and do not include such criminal practices. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Whips Office to ensure that the Government do not prevent the Bill going through, so that we can change this situation?

I do not honestly believe that there is any legal impediment at the moment to retailers doing a proper job of establishing the provenance of the food they serve on their shelves.

We already have strict rules, with penalties, relating to food tracing and labelling. Should we not review those penalties to provide a greater deterrence to companies?

We continue to keep our policies on labelling under review. In this case, however, it appears that it is not simply a labelling error. We are almost certainly talking about real criminality, and there are very clear laws in place to deal with such criminality.

This scandal—because that is what it is—has affected supermarket chains in this country. What investigations have been carried out of the beefburgers that go into the fast food chains, and how confident can my constituents be that they are getting a Big Mac rather than a Shergar Mac?

Those investigations are under way to ensure that if this scandal is replicated in other low-cost beefburgers, it is picked up and we take appropriate action.

Given that the FSA has responsibility for food safety, I am surprised and disappointed that a Health Minister is not at least sitting in on the Minister’s response to this urgent question. Likewise, no shadow Health Minister is present either. Will the Minister send a signal to the authorities in the Irish Republic that if there is any criminality, exemplary sentences should be handed out?

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for the FSA, has apologised, because she is abroad today. That is why she is not here. Yes, we clearly want these matters to be prosecuted and dealt with with appropriate severity, and we will continue our dialogue with the Irish authorities to ensure that whatever they do is consonant with that.

I do not eat meat, but the majority of my constituents do, and I think that looking on today they will be surprised and disappointed by the tone of the Minister’s comments suggesting that those of us standing up for consumers are somehow talking down the food industry. Will he revisit the proposed cuts to the FSA’s budget to ensure that meat hygiene inspections are not compromised?

As I have explained many times, the FSA is a responsibility of the Department of Health, but I have no reason to suppose that its activities will be compromised by future budgetary constraints. I am absolutely clear—let me repeat this—that we ought to be very concerned about this matter on behalf of consumers in this country, but we also ought to recognise that it does not mean that food across the country sold by all retailers is suspect. It is not, and that is the point that I am trying to make. At such times, consumers need to be reassured that systems are in place—systems that, in fact, caught this cross-contamination in this case.

As a result of this serious incident, several supermarkets in Britain have removed a lot of products from their shelves as a precaution. Does my hon. Friend agree that this demonstrates a responsible attitude on the part of British retailers in dealing with this serious issue?

I think that the great majority of businesses in this country take an extraordinarily responsible attitude to their duties to the consumer. That is precisely the point I am trying to make. It makes it all the more important that where we find that abuse has taken place, we act urgently and effectively to prevent it from happening again.

Many of my constituents, like those of other Members, rely on brands such as the Tesco everyday value brand, because of the high price of food. Does the Minister understand that his remarks and tone today give the impression that he has been captured, stunned, trussed up and served to the nation as the Minister for the producer interest?

That is clearly not the case and is clearly not reflected in anything I have said. I have said all along that the interests of the consumer are paramount.

Is it more or less likely that this sort of food safety scandal will happen again in view of the reduction in food safety surveillance and the downgrading of food safety regulations?

As I have said, I do not think that there is a downgrading of surveillance. We take the matter extremely seriously and ensure that what we do is targeted in the most effective way in order to pick up irregularities when they occur. It is very important that people recognise that. It is also important to recognise that we had here a system picking up a defect, not ignoring it.

Earlier the Minister said that there was collaboration on these issues. Given that the Irish Food Safety Authority’s tests were undertaken in November, could he advise the House when DEFRA was informed of those tests?

DEFRA would not have been the first port of call, because this is a matter between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Food Standards Agency in this country. I understand that they had a dialogue earlier this week.

Mr Jeff Rooker, the chairman of the FSA, is due to stand down in just a few months’ time. Will the Minister ensure that the Department of Health fills the post before June? [Interruption.]

Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. I understand people’s consternation on this matter, but let us hear Mr Docherty’s question and then the Minister can answer it.

I am most grateful, Mr Speaker. Mr Jeff Rooker, who is the chairman of the FSA, is due to stand down in just a few months’ time. Will the Minister of State ensure that the Department of Health fills that important role before June?

He is actually Lord Rooker—and somebody who in the past has filled the position that I currently occupy. He is standing down—that is absolutely right. Of course the post will be filled, because it is an extremely important one, and I have no doubt that the timetable will be consonant with the time of his departure.

The hon. Lady is too late. If she had risen earlier, she would have got in. We were drawing matters to a close. I thank the Minister and other colleagues for their co-operation.