I would like to update the House on recent developments with regard to horsemeat and food fraud.
The events that we have seen unfold over the past few days in the UK and Europe are completely unacceptable. Consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label. It is outrageous that consumers have been buying products labelled beef, which turn out to contain horsemeat. The Government are taking urgent action with the independent Food Standards Agency, the industry and our European partners.
Let me turn first to the facts. On 15 January, the FSA was notified by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of the results of its survey of processed beef products on the Irish market. The Irish study identified trace amounts of horse and pig DNA in the majority of the sample, but identified one product, a Tesco burger, where there was evidence of flagrant adulteration with horsemeat. The investigations in Ireland are ongoing.
On 16 January, in order to investigate the implications for the UK market, the FSA announced a four-point plan. That included telling implicated food businesses to test their processed beef products and the launch of a full scientific study of processed beef products on the UK market.
On 31 January, the Prison Service of England and Wales notified the Food Standards Agency that traces of pork DNA had been found in a selection of meat pies labelled as halal. Although trace contamination does not necessarily indicate fraudulent activity, any contamination is clearly of concern to faith communities. The affected products were quarantined and the contracts suspended.
On 4 February, the FSA announced that it had tested a consignment of frozen meat that was being stored at Freeza Meats in Northern Ireland for horse DNA. That consignment had been detained by the local authority in October 2012 because of labelling irregularities. The consignment is under the secure control of the local authority. None of the consignment has entered the food chain and so no recall is necessary. As part of the investigation, Newry and Mourne local authority has tested current products from Freeza Meats and neither horse nor pig DNA has been found in any of those products. The FSA is undertaking a detailed investigation, which includes following the supply chain of Freeza Meats and any other producers that are implicated.
On the evening of 6 February, Findus informed the Food Standards Agency that it had confirmation of horsemeat in frozen beef lasagne products. The lasagne were produced in Luxembourg by a French company, Comigel, with the meat supplied by another French company, Spanghero. The test results were supplied to the FSA on the morning of 7 February. The FSA is investigating the case urgently in liaison with the French authorities and the police. The FSA has assured me that it currently has no evidence to suggest that the products recalled by Findus represent a food safety risk. The 7 February announcement that very significant amounts of horsemeat had been found in Findus lasagne moved the issue from one of trace contamination to one of either gross negligence or criminality.
On 8 February, Aldi withdrew two beef products after its tests found that they contained horsemeat. The products were supplied by Comigel, the same company that supplied Findus. Asda and Tesco also withdrew products from the same suppliers on a precautionary basis.
Food regulation is an area of European competence. Under the European legal framework, main responsibility for the safety and authenticity of food lies with those who produce, sell or provide it to the customer. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency was set up by the previous Government as an independent agency, and I have sought to respect its independence. It leads the operational response, and I am today updating the House on progress with its investigations and on the action I have been taking with the industry and European counterparts. I have made clear my expectation that food businesses do whatever is necessary to provide assurances to consumers that their products are what they say they are.
The Minister of State and the FSA met food retailers and suppliers on 4 February and made it clear that we expect the food industry to publish results of its own testing of meat products to provide a clearer public picture of standards in the food chain. In response to the Findus announcement of 7 February, the FSA asked in addition that all producers and retailers test all their processed beef products for the presence of horsemeat. On Saturday 9 February I called in the major food retailers, manufacturers and distributors to make clear my expectation that they verify and trace the source of all their processed beef products without delay.
At that meeting with the British Retail Consortium, the Food and Drink Federation, the British Meat Processors Association, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, the Institute of Grocery Distribution and individual retailers, I made it clear that I expected to see from them the following: meaningful results from testing by the end of this week; more testing of products for horse along the supply chain and that the industry co-operates fully with the FSA on that; publication of industry test results every three months through the FSA; and that they let the FSA know as soon as they become aware of a potential problem in their products. I made it very clear that there must be openness and transparency in the system for the benefit of consumers, and that retailers and processors must deliver on those commitments to reassure their customers.
Let me reiterate: immediate testing of products will be done across the supply chain, including suppliers to schools, hospitals and prisons as well as retailers. The FSA issued advice to public service providers on Sunday 11 February in advance of the working week. I also reiterate that the FSA has assured me that it currently has no evidence to suggest that recalled products represent a food safety risk. The chief medical officer’s advice is that even if bute is found to be present at low levels, there is a very low risk that it would cause any harm to health. People who have bought Findus beef lasagne products are advised not to eat them and return them to the shop they bought them from as a precaution.
The ultimate source of these incidents is still being investigated, but it is already clear that we are dealing with Europe-wide supply networks. I am taking action to ensure effective liaison with the European Commission and other member states, and I have been in touch with Irish Minister Simon Coveney on several occasions since 28 January. I have spoken to him twice again today and have also spoken to European Commissioner Borg, the French Minister Stéphane Le Foll and Romanian Minister Daniel Constantin. I emphasised the need for rapid and effective action, and I am grateful for the good co-operation there has already been.
I have agreed with Minister Coveney that there will be an urgent meeting with Commissioner Borg of Ministers from the member states affected. In addition we agreed that this issue will be on the agenda of the Agriculture Council on 25 February. At the moment this appears to be an issue of fraud and mislabelling, but if anything suggests the need for changes to surveillance and enforcement in the UK we will not hesitate to make those changes. Once we have established the full facts of the current incidents and identified where enforcement action can be taken, we will want to look at the lessons to be learned from this episode. I will make a further statement about that in due course.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I completely understand why people are so concerned about this issue. It is unacceptable that they have been deceived in this way. There appears to have been criminal activity in an attempt to defraud the consumer. The prime responsibility for dealing with this lies with retailers and food producers who need to demonstrate that they have taken all necessary actions to ensure the integrity of the food chain in this country. I am in daily contact with the FSA. This week I will be having further contact with European counterparts and I will be meeting the food industry again, together with the FSA, tomorrow. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement. Four weeks ago, the Irish authorities alerted the UK Government that they had discovered horsemeat in burgers stocked by UK supermarkets, including Tesco, Iceland and Lidl. Last Monday, we discovered that meat labelled as halal and served in UK prisons had tested positive for pig DNA. On Thursday, the scandal spread from frozen burgers to frozen ready meals, as we discovered that Findus beef lasagne contained up to 100% horsemeat. On Friday, this incompetent Secretary of State and his food Minister went home—[Interruption.]
On Friday, No. 10 told the press that the Secretary of State was working hard at his desk, getting a grip on this crisis. But in fact he had to be called back to London from his long weekend—crisis, what crisis? Until Saturday’s panic summit, he had not actually met the food industry to address this crisis. The food Minister had met with the food industry just once, exactly a week ago.
On Friday, I received information that three British companies were involved, potentially, in importing beef that actually contained horse. I wrote to the Secretary of State, offering to share the information with him. I also handed it to the Serious Organised Crime Agency. On Friday, the FSA said that the police were involved, so I was reassured. However, on Friday night the Met police said that they had had talks with the FSA, but that there was no live criminal investigation. On Saturday, after a conversation with one of the food industry representatives, I realised that the Secretary of State had not revealed the names of those firms to the food industry at the meeting. Why not? If the Government want the food industry to test on the basis of risk, why did the Secretary of State not share the names of those companies at Saturday’s meeting?
On Thursday, DEFRA announced its statutory testing regime, with 28 local councils purchasing and testing eight samples each. Does the Secretary of State seriously expect people to wait 10 weeks for the results? Can he confirm that that will be the first survey of product content that his Department has carried out since his Government removed compositional labelling from the Food Standards Agency in 2010? He talks about the FSA’s operational independence, but it is not responsible for the content of our food—he is. When will he stop hiding behind civil servants and take some responsibility? Does he think that surveying just 224 products from across the country matches the scale of this scandal, when he has asked the supermarkets to test thousands of their products by Friday? Can he confirm today to the House that not all of those thousands of tests will be completed by Friday?
Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many products the large public sector catering suppliers will test and how many lines the members of the British Meat Processors Association will test? In his letter to me last Friday, he stated that some members of the British Hospitality Association and the British Retail Consortium have withdrawn products as a precaution. Can he tell the House which members have withdrawn which products, and whether any of them supplies schools, prisons and hospitals? The supermarkets have acted with speed and a degree of transparency on this that puts him to shame. I am disappointed that the hospitality industry and caterers have not been as candid.
In his letter to me, the Secretary of State said that the FSA is taking up individual suspicious incidents with authorities and the police across Europe. He said in the media this weekend that there is an international criminal conspiracy at work. Does he think that international criminals are present everywhere in Europe apart from in the United Kingdom? The French Government estimate that the Findus fraud alone has netted criminals €300,000. This is clearly big criminal business. Why have the UK police not investigated on the basis of the intelligence supplied? Has he had the full results of the tests carried out by the Irish authorities?
At Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions nearly three weeks ago, I asked the food Minister about horses contaminated with bute slaughtered in the UK and entering the human food chain. It has now been confirmed that of the nine UK horses that tested positive for bute, one was stopped, five went to France, two to the Netherlands and one to the UK. However, when council officials approached the people who had supposedly taken the horse to eat it, they had no knowledge of what had happened to it.
There has been talk of an EU import ban, but has the Secretary of State considered the possibility that horses are going to UK and Irish abattoirs and entering the food chain in the UK? Which horse abattoirs in the UK are on the FSA’s cause for concern list? Have any horses presented for slaughter in the past month been rejected by officials because of concerns over their passports? If so, where and how many?
The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has clear evidence of illegal trade in unfit horse from Ireland to the UK for meat, with horses being re-passported to meet demand for horsemeat in mainland Europe. It says that there are currently 70,000 horses unaccounted for in Northern Ireland. Unwanted horses are being sold for €10 and sold on for meat for €500—a lucrative trade. It is convenient to blame the Poles and Romanians, but so far neither country has found any problems with its beef abattoirs.
When will the Secretary of State get his story straight on bute? This horse medicine is banned from the food chain for a reason. On Friday, he said:
“I would have no hesitation at all in eating these products.”
Yet on Sunday he said that this food could be injurious to human health. The Health Secretary said it is just a labelling issue. Is this not symptomatic of the Government’s dangerous complacency?
I note the chief medical officer’s advice to people this morning. What levels of bute have to be present in the meat for it to be a human health risk? Will the Secretary of State tell us what the safe limits of bute consumption for human beings are, given that it is banned from the human food chain? The British public must have confidence that the food they buy is correctly labelled, legal and safe. When Ministers came to the Commons to answer my urgent question on 17 January, the food Minister said:
“It is important that neither the hon. Lady nor anyone else in this House talks down the British food industry.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 1027.]
These invisible regulatory services protect our consumers and our food industry, and allow it to export all over the world. [Interruption.] I think Government Members would do well to listen as this issue is of interest to their constituents and the lack of information from their Government has been nothing short of a disgrace.
This weekend consumer confidence in British food was sinking like a stone. Food is a £12 billion industry that supports hundreds of thousands of UK jobs and exports. In common with No. 10, it is rapidly losing faith in this Secretary of State’s ability to lead them through this crisis.
You would not think that we had inherited Labour’s system would you, Mr Deputy Speaker? You really wouldn’t. I always admire the hon. Lady—she really has a nerve.
This issue is a European competence. As agreed by her Government, the independent Food Standards Agency was set up and we have followed their policy of respecting that independence. Today, I talked to its chairman, Lord Rooker, whom she knows well, and he agreed that we had respected its independence. In the early stages of this history, this was an issue of trace DNA in an Irish abattoir. Once it came to the Findus case, where there was a significant volume of horse material, it took on a whole new dimension. He agreed that it was then appropriate that the Secretary of State should become publicly involved, as I have been in recent days. The hon. Lady is critical of the FSA’s survey—on which I wish it well. I raised it with the noble Lord this afternoon, and he agreed that April was the intended end date for these results, but that he could possibly publish some of them as he works through.
The hon. Lady completely misses the point that the retailers are responsible for the quality and content of their food. That is laid down in European law. Her Government passed a statutory instrument in 2002. [Interruption.] There is no point in the hon. Lady shouting. She must understand that under the current arrangements it is for retailers to decide. She has completely missed the point that they are responsible for testing, they are responsible for the integrity of their food and they are responsible to their customers. They have a massive self-interest in this, because obviously they want their customers to come back. She will be pleased to hear that we had a most satisfactory meeting on Saturday, and they will be bringing forward meaningful results by the end of this week.
The hon. Lady went on a bit about the police. [Interruption.] I agree with my hon. Friends that she went on and on about the police. This is a serious issue, and the FSA has raised it with the Metropolitan police, but the hon. Lady must understand that until there is a criminal action in this country, they cannot take action. However, the FSA has been in touch with Europol, because it does look as though there have been criminal cases on the continent.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Irish test. I have had a conversation this afternoon with Minister Coveney. We have agreed that there will be protocol between our two independent agencies to agree testing equivalents and to work extremely closely together, because our two food industries so often work in co-operation on either side of the Irish sea.
The hon. Lady mentioned horses. Today, Lord Rooker will announce that further to our recent announcement that all horses slaughtered in this country will be tested for bute, no carcase will be released until it has been proven positive.
Finally, the advice on food is very simple. I have been completely consistent. It must have been in an interview and I think she mis-heard the second part of a sentence when I was speaking. I have been absolutely clear. The independent agency that gives professional advice is the Food Standards Agency. I, the hon. Lady, hon. Members and the public should follow its advice. As long as products are free for sale and have not been recommended for withdrawal by the FSA, they are safe for human consumption. I recommend that she follows the advice of the independent agency that her Government set up.
Is it not absolutely right that this is a European problem that requires a European solution? This contaminated meat should never have entered the UK food chain. It now appears that the Romanian authorities did not do the product and labelling checks before the contaminated food left Romanian shores. Will my right hon. Friend please assure us that he will confirm, with both the Commission and the Romanian Minister, that these product checks are in place and that no further consignment should be admitted into this country until we know it is as marked on the label? Will he also look to the European food labelling regulations, articles 7 and 8, that permit precautionary temporary measures to be put in place to save our retailers from this expense? Will he also ask the FSA why it did not commence inspections when it was told that the Irish FSA was doing so in November last year?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for her question. Commissioner Borg made it clear to me today that there were no grounds for banning imports on mislabelling or fraud, and that that could happen only if human safety might be imperilled. I have also spoken to Minister Constantin in Romania, who was very emphatic on this point—we have to be fair to all countries involved. He made it quite clear to me—I am happy to share this with the House—that the two main named abattoirs, one of which only deals with horsemeat, shipped products that were correctly labelled. Horsemeat was shipped and it was labelled as horsemeat. I therefore think that this case has some distance further to travel, and we should not jump to conclusions, which is why I am pleased that my discussions with Minister Coveney have led to an agreement that the Agriculture Ministers of the half dozen countries concerned will meet. We all want to get to the bottom of this.
The Secretary of State says that there is no evidence of criminal activity in this country, but may I remind him that inaccurate labelling is illegal? Why has it taken him more than three weeks to summon the retailers and four weeks to come to the House? Given that the highly respected Chair of the Select Committee said on the “Today” programme on Friday that she would not eat processed beef products, why is he still recommending that people do?
We have the red tractor and other farm assurance schemes that guarantee that meat from those sources is guaranteed through to processed product. May I urge the Secretary of State to urge people to eat that type of meat, which is completely traceable? Finally, Europe has been far too lax on this type of meat processing for many years, so we need a tightening up across the whole of Europe in order to know exactly what we are eating.
I am entirely happy to recommend to all consumers in this country that they buy good British products in which they can have faith. We have extraordinarily rigorous processes for traceability and production systems, so I have total confidence in British products and strongly recommend them to the British consumer.
Will the Secretary of State explain why companies such as Tesco can consistently reject entire consignments of our farmers’ fruit and veg for being misshapen—at the cost of the farmer—yet have not focused the same attention on processed meat in their own lines, because it is not at the front of the freezer and does not affect the appearance? Will he ensure that in future the FSA has in perpetuity statutory powers to instruct retailers to carry out tests on their entire product lines consistent with the volume of product being shifted over the year?
Unlike the last Government, we have set up a groceries adjudicator, which answers the hon. Gentleman’s first question. On the second one, he will be pleased to hear that at Saturday’s meeting we agreed that retailers would carry out this testing, which will have meaningful results by the end of the week. Further to that, however, I want these results published on a regular basis—every three months.
May I express my entire confidence in how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has dealt with this issue? Does it not raise a further point, however, which is that British farmers are handicapped when trying to compete with food producers from countries that not only do not carry out the appropriate checks, but have much lower animal welfare standards than we do?
My hon. Friend is right. It is a scandal that, despite our egg producers last year conforming to the enriched cages directive, and despite the fact that again this year we were 100% up because we were the first out of the traps to end tethering, some major European countries have still not conformed. I raised that point with Commissioner Borg at our last Council meeting and wrote to him about it last week.
Will the Secretary of State guarantee that cuts to the FSA and the introduction of the self-regulatory hazard analysis and critical control points system will not compromise, and never has compromised, meat hygiene inspections and the ability to ensure that meat is legal and safe?
The hon. Lady, having read out a Whips’ handout, has unwittingly touched on an incredibly important question. The whole issue concerns a paper-based system that places too much faith in the accuracy of the paper recording what might be in the pallet or consignment, so she is absolutely right to raise the question of testing. I briefly discussed this point with Commissioner Borg today and have discussed it with the noble Lord Rooker. I would like to see more random testing of products halfway through the process, so she is on the button—it is a most important point.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that prime responsibility must lie with the retailers, and that retailers should use some of their vast profits to ensure product quality and guarantee that their products are exactly what they say they are?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Consumers must have faith in the products provided by the retailers. It is the retailers’ responsibility to present consumers with goods that are wholesome, of quality and conform to the label. It is important that the retailers get out there and sell their systems and products in a way that keeps the faith of the consumer.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that Findus still has serious questions to answer. In particular, exactly when did the company have a reasonable suspicion that the supply chain was contaminated and who took the decision not to enact an immediate product recall? Ultimate responsibility lies with the man at the top—in this case, Manhattan-based private equity investor Dale Morrison. Does he agree that it is shameful that he has not flown to the UK immediately to tackle this problem or issued a word of contrition?
I talked to the UK chief executive of Findus on Saturday afternoon, but I think we have to be cautious about what we say, because I understand that Findus might launch legal proceedings against Comigel and possibly Spanghero. The important point, however, is that I made it clear at our meeting on Saturday that from now on, the minute that any food business has evidence that there might be something untoward in a product or that something might not conform, it must tell the FSA immediately, and that as soon as that evidence is corroborated by a scientifically valid laboratory test, the product should be withdrawn very publicly. I made it clear to the retailers that I would strongly support any withdrawal on those grounds.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decisive action in this matter. Quite rightly, his priority should be the safety of consumers and restoring confidence in our great British food industry. He knows, however, that the national equine database was closed down last December. What assessment has he made of the impact of that closure on the Department’s ability to keep track of horses in the UK, and is he confident that the current systems available to him enable his Department to keep a track on equine movements and locations?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her comments. She is right to raise the issue of equine databases. We have absolute confidence that we have access to all the information contained in the various ones around the country, and we are also very clear that the significant statement today by the noble Lord Rooker—that every single horse carcase will be held until it is proved clear—will be of great reassurance to the British consumer.
Highly processed foods of this kind are more likely to form a larger part of the diets of low-income families—of which there are far too many in Newcastle thanks to this Government’s actions. Is the Secretary of State seriously saying that when someone in Blakelaw buys a burger, they need to research the entire supply chain, rather than relying on the Government and the Secretary of State?
This is a serious misunderstanding. The hon. Lady must understand that under this system it is the retailers who are responsible. It is for the retailers to get out there and show their customers that their processed beef products are sound, that they have increased random testing and that these products are completely clear. It is for the retailers to prove that they can reassure their customers.
Illegal meat trading is one of the most profitable criminal activities, with limited penalties. Replacing dear beef with cheap horsemeat enables huge profits to be made. Does the Secretary of State agree that the active involvement of Europol is essential to break up the complex criminal food chains that have been set up to take advantage of our consumers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sadly, there is significant money to be made from this criminal activity. It is a fraud on the public. It is absolutely wrong that a British consumer should go to a retail outlet and buy a product marked “processed beef” and find later that it contains horsemeat. It is a straight fraud. It is criminal activity. We are absolutely determined to bear down on it, working with our European partners to stop it, and I am delighted that the FSA is working closely with Europol.
Northern Ireland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, produces first-class meat products, but this meat scandal has seriously damaged public confidence in the safety of our food and is depressing an industry that is already struggling because of weather conditions. Does the Secretary of State agree that the only way to restore confidence is to find out who has engaged in this illegal activity, put them out of business and bring them before the courts?
I wholeheartedly concur with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. This is a fraud on the public. It is wrong for them to be presented with a product and find out later that it is not what is claimed. There is no health issue here; this is an issue of fraud and labelling. With reference to his previous question, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to get the perpetrators—these criminals—and stop this practice.
The Irish Food Safety Authority has been ahead of the Food Standards Agency every step of the way. The people I am concerned about are the British beef producers. Nobody seems to care about them. They have seen their products replaced by poor fakes. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it and how are these poor, besmirched people going to get their market share back?
I would like to correct my hon. Friend a little. The reason the Irish agency picked up this issue in the Irish plant was that it had local intelligence that there was a problem. That is why it did a random check —I cleared that with Minister Coveney today. As far as I am concerned, my hon. Friend will find no stauncher supporter of British beef than the Secretary of State standing before him. We have splendid cattle, rigorous traceability systems, strictly run abattoirs and a splendid finished product.
I think we have all been shocked by these unacceptable failures in our food supply chain. Does the Secretary of State agree that one way we can be absolutely sure what is on our plates is to buy Scotch beef—quality assured and fully traceable—preferably from a local butcher, and not least that which is produced in Banff and Buchan?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I talked to her Minister, Richard Lochhead, only yesterday. She may be a great advocate of locally produced Scottish beef, and I may be a great advocate of British beef—or Shropshire beef—but she is absolutely right that British consumers should have faith in locally produced food.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will be glad to know that many of us want to know whether the European Commission is being held accountable under the EU’s food and labelling regulations, which include specific notification of the species of the animal used in food. Will he assure us that all necessary actions and discussions are being pursued with Commissioner Borg to ensure that those with the legal obligations to audit these matters—including the directorate, under him, of the food and veterinary office—comply with EU standards?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot-on to recognise the key role of the Commissioner, as this is a European competence, and that is why I spoke to him today. I am pleased to record that he was extraordinarily co-operative. We are going to fix up a meeting—at very short notice—with him and the key Agriculture Ministers some time this week. The point my hon. Friend raises is definitely one that I will make clear to the Commissioner at that meeting.
I am sorry the hon. Gentleman is unhappy with my demeanour. I am as active as I think he will find is necessary on this issue, having been at it for many, many days now. More importantly, the advice that the FSA has given to suppliers to schools, hospitals and prisons—it is exactly the same as that given to retailers—is clear. Unless the FSA recommends that a product be withdrawn, the public, schoolchildren, prisoners and those in hospitals should have faith in the product.
Phenylbutazone is an incredibly common, but useful drug to all horse owners. The presence of a verifiable, accurate and up-to-date horse passport is no guarantee whatever that a horse has not been given bute. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to check that a carcase is bute-free is to test it?
The Secretary of State says that retailers and food processors have prime responsibility for the content of their products. Nevertheless, the public feel that the Government have a responsibility to ensure enforcement of accurate labelling. His Government did away with responsibility for labelling of food content back in 2010. Can he now explain how it is shared between the FSA, his Department and the Department of Health, whether he thinks that is satisfactory and what improvements he thinks need to be made?
May I offer my right hon. Friend my full support? Is this not an opportunity for patriotic purchasing, not only by buying Scottish products, but by buying British products? If consumers want to be confident in the provenance of food, they should buy local, local, local.
My hon. Friend has a good point. People are quite right to have great faith in their local suppliers—transport times are reduced, there is clear traceability and there will be clear local knowledge. I repeat: we have great local producers, rigorous traceability systems and stringent production systems, and we end up with superb quality.
The Secretary of State professes great concern about what is in our meat and the importance of accurate food labelling, yet according to press reports, the UK is trying to get an exemption from EU regulations that would limit to below 50% the amount of fat and connective tissue that can be used to bulk up minced meat. Does that not completely fly in the face of what he has tried to tell the House today?
My right hon. Friend has told us that food regulation is an area of European competence. Some of us may think it an area of European incompetence. As a result of European failures, it seems that my constituents are getting disgusting food—whether or not it is a health risk, it is revolting. I wonder whether the Secretary of State will consider emergency legislation, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972, to allow us to stop importing disgusting food.
I look forward to sitting down with my hon. Friend and coming up with a legal definition of “disgusting food”. Let me be more positive and refer to my earlier replies: there is splendid food grown in my hon. Friend’s part of England, and I would strongly recommend his constituents to buy local.
It is interesting that the hon. Lady uses the term “food chain”. What we have seen in recent days is the extraordinary complexity involved, and I am trying to get away from the expression “food chain”. It is an extraordinary network—an amazing kaleidoscopic variety of factories and suppliers all working together. It is a real network, and what is quite clear in this case is that there has to be more rigorous and more random testing. I have faith in the advice of the independent Food Standards Agency, but down the road, and picking up on the previous question, within the constraints we work under, I would like to see more random testing.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the speedy, effective, thorough and robust way in which he has handled this issue. My local butcher in Braintree clearly labels its products so I know what I am buying and where it came from. I like to support our local farmers and buy local. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging retailers to have better and clear labelling, so consumers know what exactly is in the products they buy and where they come from?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and he will be delighted to hear that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is in her place next to me on the Front Bench, is working on that very issue as we speak.
The hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who is just leaving the Chamber, was absolutely right that our near neighbour, Ireland, was ahead of the game in dealing with this issue. What can the Secretary of State learn from his Irish counterparts? On the issue of international criminality, is he confident that we have enough resources and surveillance at our ports of entry?
The hon. Gentleman has, I think, missed the point. The Irish had local intelligence of a local problem in Ireland, which is why random testing was done in Ireland. On his other question, I have discussed the issue with the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, and she is clear that, with her organisation having made some sensible efficiencies, she can certainly deliver everything we ask.
May I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? Given that the problem is with international processors, can the Secretary of State reassure us that any change in legislation or regulation will not fall on the shoulders of small independent butchers and retailers?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There has been a lot of acknowledgement around the House about the benefits of local production, but sadly in recent years we have seen the closure of a large number of small local abattoirs. Such abattoirs are of real value—there are animal welfare and food-quality benefits—so we should be judicious in any moves we make and value small country abattoirs.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that of course people have a right to take their products back. What we clearly agreed with the retailers on Saturday was that if any product has been recalled, any consumer has the right to take that product back to the retailer and get a full refund.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an obvious step we could take now is to ensure that the £2 billion or so we spend each year on food for schools and hospitals is used to support our own British farmers, as is done in many other countries in Europe—a policy that our party supported vociferously when it was in opposition?
I would not use the word “contaminated”; these products are “adulterated”. This is a case of fraud and mis-labelling; there is no evidence at all that these products are in any way a threat to human health. I have discussed this with Commissioner Borg today, and there is absolutely no reason under the current arrangements of European law to provide a basis for a ban. Should we find a product that is injurious to human health, we would obviously act very rapidly. The Commissioner agreed that in those circumstances we would put out a notice around Europe and all take unilateral action.
We would all dearly like to eat anything marked with a red tractor or a Scottish saltire, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, what families eat depends on the household budget. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the retailers are responsible for what is sold, but he is responsible for the pace at which this moves forward. We are losing confidence in what people are buying, and if we do not move forward quickly, it will cause reputational damage to the agricultural industry. Will he move this on at a greater pace, and what has he done in respect of speaking to colleagues in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this needs resolving fast. I do not think any greater unity of intent could be seen than in my conversations today. Minister Le Foll from France was emphatic: the moment I suggested the meeting, he was determined to come along. We are quite clear that we all have an alliance of interest in resolving this issue as fast as possible. The hon. Gentleman is right that this issue could damage confidence, but I stress again that this is a case of fraud and mis-labelling: it is not a problem with food safety.
I very much welcome the wider debate about where our food comes from. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the increased popularity of shop local campaigns, local food co-operatives and farmers’ markets, all of which are booming in my constituency?
I am astounded that the Secretary of State thinks that this is a mis-labelling issue, given that some beef products have not even come into contact with a cow—except perhaps sharing a field with one at some time. I am appalled when he says that there is not even a health issue. Should he not take responsibility for, and take more seriously, the potential for contamination of the human food chain by the drug bute, which is not fit for human consumption?
I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that this is a case of mis-labelling and fraud; it is not a case of food safety. The noble Lord Rooker said today that, sadly, 20,000 people go to hospital because of a food-related complaint and, tragically, something like 500 die, yet he does not know of a single individual whose health has been affected by the importation of these products. I think hon. Members must get this in perspective. The hon. Gentleman mentioned bute, but I draw his attention to today’s advice from the chief medical officer, who said:
“It’s understandable that people will be concerned, but it is important to emphasise that even if bute is found to be present at low levels, there is a very low risk indeed that it would cause any harm to health”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Opposition Front Benchers are demonstrating a degree of opportunism, given that we are operating under a system that we inherited from them? Will he confirm that no testing for horsemeat in food took place during the last seven years of the Labour Administration?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that that question threw the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) when she was on Andrew Neil’s programme yesterday.
The important point that my hon. Friend has made is that the Food Standards Agency is rightly targeting its efforts on problems that might be prejudicial to health. Until the case in Ireland came up, very recently, there had not been a problem with horsemeat. This is a very recent evolution, and until now the FSA has rightly been concentrating all its efforts on health problems.
Although the issue of food safety in Scotland has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, this Government had responsibility during the discussions that were held with the European Commission on Scotland’s behalf. When the Secretary of State next speaks to the Scottish Agriculture Minister, will he pass on the view of the Scottish people that it is not good enough simply to test products that are manufactured in Scotland, and that goods that are retailed in Scotland must be tested as well? Do not consumers in Scotland deserve the same protection as people in the rest of the United Kingdom?
As I think I said in answer to an earlier question, I had a very constructive conversation yesterday with Richard Lochhead, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, and he wrote me a letter today. We will work together closely, and I will include him in discussions with the FSA. However, the hon. Gentleman, like some of his colleagues, has missed the point. The ultimate arbiters when it comes to the safety, quality and integrity of food products are the retailers. The hon. Gentleman must get his head around the fact that it is the retailers who are ultimately responsible.
When he cited the Irish example, my right hon. Friend spoke of the importance of intelligence. May I urge him, in his discussions with the slightly sleepy FSA, to challenge it on its whistleblowing procedures and incentives? We need as many people as possible to come forward, and he would be taking a great step if he asked the agency how it currently manages its whistleblowing.
Transparency is essential. On Saturday, we agreed that further tests would continue, and that the FSA would publish the results every three months in order to give confidence to the consumer. Ensuring that consumers go to shops and buy British goods is absolutely key.
Given the concerns about horsemeat, and given the announcement at the end of January that pork DNA had been found in pies that were supposed to be halal, many of my constituents are naturally anxious about the classification of halal meat. Can the Secretary of State tell us what meetings he has had with halal certification organisations, and can he reassure my constituents that meat that is labelled halal is indeed halal?
If negligent, incompetent or, indeed, criminal producers are happy to contaminate products with horsemeat, with what else would they be prepared to cut those products? Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that products have also been tested for non-meat adulterants?
The Secretary of State has told us that this is an issue of fraud and mislabelling, but how can he be sure, given that the random testing seems to have involved only about 1.5% of horse carcases? How can he state so categorically that there is no health issue? If more comprehensive testing by the FSA proves that there is a health issue, will he then act unilaterally?
My constituents were horrified to hear of the circuitous route taken by some of the contents of everyday products before they arrive on the shop shelves. The Secretary of State rightly drew attention to the high quality of British beef and other products. Is he able to restrict the import of foreign products, or is he himself restricted by European legislation?
I am happy to make clear that the only grounds on which we could talk to the Commission about a ban on the import of any product would relate to food safety, and to content that might be injurious to human health. Commissioner Borg has made clear that if we did come across a product that could present a risk to food safety, he would react very rapidly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his handling of this crisis, which has contrasted sharply with the way in which it has been handled by the FSA. When the dust has settled, will he conduct an inquiry into why the FSA’s intelligence systems failed to identify the extensive prevalence of horsemeat in processed and ready-made meals in this country?
I think that a system can always be improved. We inherited the current system from the last Government. I have no doubt that there will be lessons to be learnt from this episode, but, as I said in answer to an earlier question, the area in which I am most interested in pursuing real progress is the introduction of random testing. Too much is taken for granted under the present system. Too often, although the paperwork is supposed to describe what is on the pallet or the truck, it goes through the system and no one actually checks. I think that we could make a massive improvement within the current constraints of European competence and all the other arrangements, but I think that random testing would make a real difference. I am pleased that Lord Rooker was so sympathetic to that idea today, as was Commissioner Borg.
My constituency contains the abattoir of Woodhead Bros Meat Bros Co., in Colne. Woodhead, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Morrisons supermarket, benefited from a £21 million investment last year and employs more than 700 people. All Morrisons’ meat and mince is 100% British-sourced. It uses its own abattoirs and maintains very high standards, as I have seen every time I have visited Woodhead Bros. Will the Secretary of State join me in praising retailers such as Morrisons which do the right thing and go the extra mile to ensure that their products are correct?
I understand the technical definition, but to many of my constituents a supposed beef product that is actually horse represents a contamination.
May I pursue the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)? Can the Secretary of State tell me whether, if the meat had come from outside the European Union, we would now be looking at an import ban?
That is a good question. I assume that my hon. Friend means that the product was processed within the European Union. We should not forget that the products withdrawn by Findus were eventually processed in Luxembourg from meat which, we understand, went to Castelnaudary in France and possibly came from Romania, and that they therefore counted as European Union products. Under the existing system, a product from Comigel in Luxembourg would have to present a health risk to enable me to approach Commissioner Borg to request an import ban.
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend, who cannot act freely because his actions are circumscribed by the European Union. What else does he think the European Commissioner should be doing? It seems that the Commissioner does not have much of a sense of urgency in this regard. This is criminal fraud, and we know that a great deal of criminal fraud is endemic throughout the European Union. Why is the Commissioner not taking more action more quickly?
Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to address that question directly to the Commissioner. All I can say is that the Commissioner could not have been more co-operative when I rang him today. I look forward to meeting him soon this week—certainly before the end of the week—and I shall certainly raise with him that issue of urgency.
Through the extensive use of their loyalty card schemes, the big supermarkets have a very good idea about which individual consumers are buying which beef—horse—products. At the recent summit that he held, did my right hon. Friend get any indication from the big supermarkets that they would use direct promotion to contact individual consumers, first to say sorry, secondly to restore confidence, and thirdly to offer compensation to those who have brought these products in the recent past?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As I have said in my replies to Opposition Members, it is for the retailers to get their message across and take the necessary steps to ensure the validity and integrity of their product. It is for the retailers to communicate with their consumers to ensure that they come back.
I applaud the Secretary of State’s robust approach to eating British food; that is something that everyone in the House will agree with. I am also impressed that he has referred to random testing. Does he think that random testing should be applied to all steps of the food chain? That is an important issue that we need to discuss.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. That is exactly what I am thinking of. I repeat that I am concerned that the system as currently conceived is all based on trust. A product is certified at the beginning of the process with a certificate or a piece of paper to state that such and such a pallet contains such and such a product, and it then goes through the system based completely on trust. I would like to have random testing at every stage, so that everyone could be kept on their toes. That could deliver considerable benefits.
Consumer confidence is key. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the serious questions being asked about the conduct of many of our EU neighbours illustrate the urgency of implementing the display of full product origins on food labels?