We now come to the main business. The first of the two Opposition day debates is on a motion about horsemeat in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
Before I call the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to move the motion, I should say that given the number of people seeking to contribute from the Back Benches, the likelihood is that there will be a limit on Back-Bench speeches of eight minutes or thereabouts. However, the length of that limit depends on the length of the Front-Bench speeches. My successor in the Chair or I will give a ruling on the matter when we see how long Front Benchers have taken to develop their points.
I shall try to bear your comments in mind, Mr Speaker.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that up to 100 per cent horsemeat has been found in supermarket and branded processed meat products and that horsemeat has been found at the premises of a UK meat processing plant; notes with concern that seven horses which tested positive for phenylbutazone (bute) contamination have entered the human food chain, including one in England; further notes that meat supplied to UK prisons, labelled Halal, has tested positive for pork DNA; recognises that the Irish government and Northern Irish Executive have called in the police and specialist fraud units to tackle the problem of horsemeat adulteration; further recognises that thousands of jobs depend on consumer confidence in the UK and Irish meat industries; and calls on the Government to ensure that police and fraud specialists investigate the criminal networks involved in horsemeat adulteration, to speed up the Food Standards Agency official tests so that results are back in 14 days and restore consumer confidence in the meat industry by working with the food industry and other EU member states and EU institutions to define new testing, labelling and traceability standards for the meat industry to protect consumers from fraud.
It is four weeks to the day since the Irish authorities told the UK Government that they had discovered horsemeat in burgers, and 10 million suspect burgers were withdrawn. Products from Tesco, Iceland, Co-op, Lidl and Aldi have all tested positive for horsemeat. The burgers came from Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, subsidiaries of the ABP Food Group. A third company—Liffey Meats in County Cavan in Ireland—was also found to be supplying products with horse DNA.
Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to correct comments that she made in column 612 of yesterday’s Hansard? She said that 70,000 horses are unaccounted for in Northern Ireland and being sold in the lucrative horsemeat trade. That is not the case; the evidence relates to the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland. The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a responsible organisation and made the claims not about Northern Ireland but about the Republic. Will she join me in a cross-party promotion of Northern Ireland’s red meat sector, which produces among the best, most traced and tastiest food in this country? I would be delighted if she agreed that our border is more secure than a slip of the tongue on the Front Bench.
I am happy for the record to be put straight on that; in the heat of the debate, I made a slip of the tongue. I am the granddaughter of a cattle farmer in Northern Ireland, so it is incumbent on me to recommend the meat of the good cows of Northern Ireland.
I am most grateful to my fellow Yorkshire MP for giving way. May I ask her to correct another part of the record? I think she will find that no contamination was found at Dalepak in north Yorkshire.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the motion, but it lacks one thing—whether on purpose or by accident, I do not know. There is absolutely no reference to the British meat trade; its fresh, processed or frozen parts have not been implicated. We do not want any collateral damage to our excellent trade, which meets the highest standards of traceability, welfare and good food.
I believe that traces of horse DNA were found in products that emanated from the Dalepak plant in Hambleton; if the hon. Lady has information to the contrary, I am sure that she will take the opportunity to put the record straight. The British meat industry is not mentioned in the motion because now is not the time to be talking down the British meat industry, as she says.
Burger King, which sells a million burgers a week, gave “absolute assurances” that its burgers were fine; two weeks later they tested positive. Representatives of TRG, or the Restaurant Group, which runs Frankie and Benny’s, revealed last Monday that they had discovered a batch of meat at Rangeland Foods that tested positive for horse.
Furthermore, last Monday, the Irish authorities discovered a 900 kg block of mostly horsemeat sitting in the cold store of a Northern Ireland burger producer, Freeza Meats. The meat had been impounded during a routine inspection five months ago. I congratulate the inspectors from Newry and Mourne council, who on a routine inspection had concerns about that meat’s packaging and quality and about the absence of labelling on some products. If meat does not have a label, we have absolutely no idea where it has come from.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her leadership on this issue. She and the highly respected Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have said that they would not currently eat processed beef products. Does she share my amazement that Ministers are still encouraging people to do so?
A range of mixed messages has been coming out of the Government. The Secretary of State said on Friday that he would be happy to eat processed beef products, but said on Sunday that doing so could be injurious to human health—[Interruption.] Well, he said that substances could be found that could be injurious to human health; I remember him saying it on the Iain Dale radio show.
The issue is difficult because yesterday the chief medical officer said that testing had never been done, because nobody wants to test humans to find out who is susceptible to the serious blood disorder aplastic anaemia—of course, it would be completely unethical and impossible to conduct such a test. The Government are in a difficult position. They may be trying to minimise public concern, but there is no safe dose of bute in humans.
Does the hon. Lady agree that as the responsibility now lies with the retailers to help restore confidence, there should be an aggressive campaign by all of them to assure their customers that all the beef that they buy from now on will be British? What more can be done so that customers have confidence that they really are eating British beef?
The beef on sale right now in UK supermarkets is probably of a higher quality than ever. Lots of local and independent butchers have seen a spike in trade lately as a result of what has happened.
I said that there was no safe dose of bute for humans. I am not a medical expert, but bute can cause serious adverse side effects so should be consumed only under medical supervision—[Interruption.] Government Front Benchers are chuntering already, Mr Speaker; that is not a good sign.
The positive test on Freeza Meats led the inspectors to the meat trader, Martin McAdam, who admitted to buying the meat from a UK company, Flexi Foods, in Hull last July. A spokesman for Mr McAdam said:
“That shipment was the first one that came to light. Subsequently other tests identified other shipments of meat.”
He has identified the names of other companies involved, and on Friday I received that information. These UK food companies may or may not have supplied suspect meat products to Mr McAdam, but while there is a question mark over them, the food industry has a right to have that information.
On Friday I wrote to the Secretary of State offering to share that information with him. When he replied to me yesterday, he urged me to hand it over to the police and to the Food Standards Agency, as I already had done, and I assume that he now has it. On Saturday, however, 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. Yesterday, when I asked him why not, he failed to answer. Why did he not tell the food industry where to look? Why has he not released those names to the public so that we can have full transparency on this problem? If the Government want the industry to test on the basis of risk, why did he not share the names of the companies at Saturday’s meeting?
In the FSA advice to the public sector issued at 10 o’clock on Sunday night, the Secretary of State laid the responsibility for food safety squarely on other people’s shoulders. He said:
“We are reminding public bodies (schools, prisons, hospitals, armed forces) of their responsibility for their own food contracts. We expect them to have rigorous procurement procedures in place with reputable suppliers.”
If he knows that there are problems with some UK-based companies, why has he not told head teachers, local authorities and hospital bosses about the companies that are being investigated? I am happy to give way now if he would like to intervene.
I am very happy to do so. I have been restraining myself, Mr Speaker, because of your injunction to be as brief as possible. The Food Standards Agency, set up by the hon. Lady’s party when in government, has been quite clear in giving advice to all those who supply to public institutions such as prisons, schools and hospitals. As I said yesterday in my statement and will say again in a few minutes, food suppliers have the ultimate responsibility for the quality of what they sell.
We are none the wiser about whether the Secretary of State knows the names of these companies, which prompts the question of whether the FSA has told him or whether he has asked it. Perhaps he will clarify that.
On Friday the FSA said that the police were involved, and I thought that things were under control. However, on Friday night the Met police said that they had had talks with the FSA but there was no live criminal investigation. Will the Secretary of State tell us what action the FSA has taken against these companies? Has it been into their premises and seized evidence, and why have the police not been called in? If there are no problems with these companies, will he say so clearly now, on the record?
Last Thursday, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced its statutory testing regime, with 28 local councils purchasing and testing eight samples each. However, the Secretary of State cannot seriously expect people to wait 10 weeks for the results. Does he think that surveying just 224 products across the country rises to the challenge of this scandal when he has asked the supermarkets to test thousands of their products by Friday? How many of the 10 million withdrawn burgers have been tested? Are there any plans to test them now? If they had been tested when they were withdrawn, Ministers would able to reassure us or tell us the extent of this scandal, but because they were paralysed by fear or incompetence, or both, we are still in the dark. Will the Secretary of State confirm that only a fraction of the supermarket tests will be completed and reported by this Friday?
Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many products the large public sector catering suppliers will test and how many product lines members of the British Meat Processors Association will test? Yesterday I asked him which members of the British Hospitality Association and the British Retail Consortium have withdrawn their products as a precaution and whether any of them have withdrawn products that may have gone to schools and hospitals. Is he prepared to answer those questions today?
As a crofter and a producer, I should refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am pleased to say that the butchers in Stornoway have seen an upturn in trade as a result of this problem. It surely beggars belief that it has happened given all the tagging that has been going on in the industry. When I send a couple of beasts—lambs—to my cousin to be slaughtered, the vet has to see them. Surely we should now be pressurising the supermarkets and major retailers to stock from as close to source locally as possible—the best of Scottish lamb, beef, or whatever—to make sure that we do not have a repetition of this situation.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns for the British meat industry. As he says, we have one of the strongest food traceability systems in the world. The British Retail Consortium’s food traceability system and authorisation of processing plant is recognised to global standards. What I worry about is the very large worldwide web that has led to some Findus products coming in from Romania via Cyprus, the Netherlands and a company in south-west France. It is inexplicable to me why that meat is being transported to all those different areas and what is happening there. Every time it is transported, there are moments of risk when it can be interfered with. That is where the problems arise in the meat trade rather than at the stage that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
For many years, we have been campaigning in Ayrshire to export many of these products to places such as China, because manufacturing in this sector in China is always a bit suspect and people there will not accept these types of manufactured goods. I believe that the situation we now face will affect that trade. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an important element in resolving this situation?
I do agree. The British food industry is a £12 billion industry, and hundreds of thousands of UK jobs depend on it. I know from talking to farmers across the country that they are trying to export their animals, including pigs to China, and various products all over the place, and that people are coming here to look at some of our excellent rare breeds of beef that work particularly well in particular types of climate. This is obviously a very worrying time for the UK food industry.
The hon. Lady mentioned the upsurge in trade in local butchers over the past week. Some 30% of butchers across the whole United Kingdom had an increase in usage over the past weekend. Does she think that the traceability that is currently present within the whole United Kingdom—England, Wales, Scotland and, in particular, Northern Ireland—should be the key factor in our being able to have good products on the butchers’ shelves and in the supermarkets every week?
I agree that good traceability will be key to solving this crisis. I look forward to the Secretary of State putting in place robust measures with the entire food supply chain to make sure that this type of scandal cannot hit our industry again.
Yesterday the Secretary of State talked about inheriting the Food Standards Agency and our food regulatory system. He is right—he did—but unfortunately his Government broke it up in 2010.
The hon. Gentleman was not in the Department at that time.
The FSA website has chapter and verse on what happened. It says that in July 2010
“the food authenticity programme was transferred from the…(FSA) to Defra along with food labelling and composition policy not related to food safety or nutrition. The food authenticity programme supports the enforcement of food labelling and standards legislation through the development of methods that can determine whether foods are correctly labelled. Food authenticity…simply refers to whether the food purchased by the consumer matches its description.”
I would say that consumers who are purchasing beef burgers that later turn out to be horse would fall within that remit. The Government removed the budget and brought the 25 officials responsible for labelling the content of food back into DEFRA. In response to my parliamentary questions, we find that there are now just 12 officials working on food authenticity in DEFRA. The Secretary of State is responsible for the labelling that tells us what is in our food, the Department of Health is responsible for nutritional labelling, and the FSA for allergen labelling. That is why the official food sampling survey is a joint DEFRA-FSA survey, is it not? Will the Secretary of State confirm that this will be the very first survey of product content that his Department has carried out since his Government removed compositional labelling responsibilities from the Food Standards Agency in June 2010?
This ideological Government, who want to deregulate everything, actually created a bureaucratic nightmare for the food industry when they fragmented the FSA’s responsibility for labelling, because now manufacturers have to go to the Department of Health to look at calories, fat, salt and sugar, to the FSA to look at allergens, and to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for what it should say on the tin.
Has the loss of more than 700 trading standards officers in three years made this type of consumer fraud more widespread and less likely to be detected? Is the Secretary of State confident that the FSA’s Meat Hygiene Service, which has just been merged into the FSA, can be cut by £12 million over the four years from 2010 to 2014 without affecting its ability to detect breaches of the law or to tackle a disease outbreak?
On abattoirs, at DEFRA questions nearly three weeks ago, I asked the Minister with responsibility for food, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), whom I am glad to see in his place, about problems with the horse passport system. I was concerned that horses contaminated with bute were being slaughtered in UK abattoirs and entering the human food chain. Of the nine UK horses that tested positive for bute in 2012, one was stopped, five went to France, two to the Netherlands and one to the UK. Has the Minister considered the possibility that horses are going from UK abattoirs into the food chain?
The FSA sampled 156 horses for bute out of the 9,405 horses that were slaughtered in UK abattoirs in 2012. Nine of those horses tested positive, which is a 6% positive rate. If we scale that up to the 9,000 figure, we will see that it suggests that more than 500 horses contaminated with bute may have entered the UK human food chain last year. I raised that point two and a half weeks ago, but received a garbled response from the Minister. I am glad to see that he has stopped burbling now.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being very kind. What is her view on placing dye on meats that are not meant to go into the human food chain? That would give a clear visual signal and would probably prevent an awful lot of meats from finding their way into the human food chain, whether they come from the knacker’s yard or any other source.
I do not know how condemned meat is currently dealt with, but I have heard tales of people bleaching meat. Whatever happens to this meat, when it is condemned it needs to be permanently removed from the food chain. Clearly, something much more significant needs to happen to it, but the treatment of condemned meat is something that I am not fully aware of at the moment. I am sure I will learn a lot more about it in the next 24 hours.
As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, there is evidence of an illegal trade in horses from Ireland to the UK and a programme on the subject will be aired tonight. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has also contacted me to say that it has seen horses that have been double microchipped and double passported in order to “clean” the horse. It has also given me examples of horses being microchipped at auction—many horses do not contain a microchip—and given a clean passport. Microchips can be bought for as little as 12p on the internet and it is clearly not an offence to buy one. If a microchip is put into a horse and a passport obtained from one of the 75 societies that can issue horse passports in the UK, the new passport can be linked to the microchip so that the horse looks like it has a clean history.
The increase in the number of horses and the decrease in horse prices mean that putting horses into the food chain is attractive. At the abattoir, Government inspectors check only the microchip with the passport, and if they correspond, the horse is slaughtered and allowed into the food chain. I am glad that, as of yesterday, all horses being slaughtered in UK abattoirs are now being tested for bute, but the Minister should have acted on that two weeks ago, when I first raised the issue in the House. The passport system is clearly not working as it should. The lack of a central database and DEFRA’s decision to stop funding it in 2012 only adds to the lack of visibility of where the horses are and their bute status. Does the Secretary of State regret scrapping the national equine database to save £200,000? [Interruption.] The Minister says no—I think he might regret that. [Interruption.] I look forward to hearing what the Government’s traceability system actually is.
On working with horse passport agencies and the national equine database, does the hon. Lady agree that NED was actually far more of a competition, progeny and pedigree record, and that it would not have been possible to find out whether a horse on it had bute?
The national equine database was as the hon. Lady describes it, but the fact that it no longer exists does not help with tracking and tracing where horses have gone. There were, I think, more than 1.2 million horses on it. I will need to check the numbers, because that figure is from memory—[Interruption]—and with noises off. Michael Frayn could not have written this farce any better. My point is that without the national database, which would have eventually had a link to the microchips, the opportunities for fraud are much easier. Another issue is that of bute not being written into animal records. That needs to be looked at again.
Government Members have talked about a ban on EU imports. It has been very convenient to blame the Poles and the Romanians, but so far neither country has found anything. The risk of a Romanian horse being given expensive veterinary medicine such as bute is smaller than it is in countries such as the UK and Ireland.
The question of whether the animal has been injected with something might be a point for discussion. However, whenever people go into a shop for a beefburger, they are not looking for a horse burger, so it has to be what it says on the packet. In my opinion—I trust that this is also the hon. Lady’s opinion—it is not meat produced in the UK, but meat from outside that causes concern for many consumers. Should not all meat coming into the United Kingdom be quarantined and tested before being released into the food chain?
We need a proportionate response. The problem with the meat found in the Northern Ireland freezer is that there was no label on it at all. In such cases, how can we say where the meat has come from? That is the problem with that approach. On quarantining and testing meat, we need to make sure that what is coming in is exactly what it says on the label.
During yesterday’s statement, I thought I was going to see unicorns dancing over a blue moon as the hon. Members for Stone (Mr Cash) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who are noted, famous Eurosceptics, called for more EU regulation and asked what the European Commission was doing and whether the Health Commissioner was in control of the situation. It has been an interesting revelation for Members of all parties to see the important role that European Union regulations play.
There is an issue with large quantities of horsemeat coming in from countries such as Canada and Mexico. Kilos and tonnes of the meat come in without any traceability or any guarantee about what the horses have had injected into them.
One thing we can be sure of is that the meat did not come from Northern Ireland. Our traceability is second to none. It was the alertness of Newry and Mourne council that got it stopped in Newry. The meat was not from Northern Ireland, so it had to come from outside. We need to find out exactly where it came from, who was responsible and who acted in a criminal way, and then bring them to book.
I could not agree more, which is why I have questioned the Secretary of State so closely on the matter of the UK meat trading companies that have been named. The Secretary of State waited three and a half weeks to meet representatives of the food industry and then brought them in on a Saturday. They have now had two meetings in just four days.
Our regulatory services protect consumers and our food industry. They allow it to export all over the world. Their job has been made much more difficult by the Government’s decision to fragment the responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency. Members on both sides of the House want the British public to have confidence that the food that they buy in the shops and that comes from our producers is correctly labelled, legal and safe. The Secretary of State is responsible for ensuring that it is. It just is not good enough to say, “We don’t know what’s in your food, but whatever it is, we guarantee that it’s safe to eat.” The British people deserve so much better than that.
It is good to be back at the Dispatch Box to talk about this subject for the second day running. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on persuading her party hierarchy to bring this important issue to the Floor of the House of Commons again. I made an oral statement to the House yesterday, in which I set out the facts about what had happened and the ongoing investigations into those incidents. I am pleased to take this opportunity to update the House on further developments.
Since yesterday, Tesco has confirmed that frozen spaghetti bolognese from the same factory as the other withdrawn Comigel products has tested positive for horsemeat. The product has been withdrawn as a precaution. That result does not suggest that there is a new source of illegal horsemeat.
I am meeting senior figures from the UK food chain at the Institute of Grocery Distribution later today with the chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Lord Rooker, to whom I spoke this morning. I can also confirm that the meeting with key European Ministers and the Commission that I proposed is taking place in Brussels tomorrow evening. I will be speaking to the Dutch Minister, Sharon Dijksma, and the Polish Minister, Stanislaw Kalemba, later today.
In my statement yesterday, I set out the action that I have taken to ensure that retailers, meat manufacturers and processors are carrying out urgent testing of processed beef products and making their test results public.
It is clear from my conversations with European Ministers and Commissioner Borg in recent days that the European Commission recognises the urgency of the incidents.
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to note that I jotted down his constituency and was going to mention his point later in my speech, but I will do so now. He raises a pertinent point. It is vital that we get to the bottom of this matter as fast as possible, because we have very strict traceability in this country, very rigorous production systems and very high quality, and we do not want any slur to be cast on that or any attempt to export our excellent products to be slowed down by incidents that so far appear to be the result of criminal acts carried out abroad.
Many farmers, crofters and primary producers have an onerous burden of responsibility and bureaucracy. I seek assurances that this matter will not be used as an excuse for a cloak-and-dagger increase in that already onerous burden. The traceability should retain the vote of confidence and we should not add to the burdens.
The shadow Secretary of State is again ahead of the game with respect to what I will say in my speech. I said yesterday in my statement that I have a gut feeling—actually, it is a clear belief—that too much is taken on trust in the current system. Too often, it is taken on trust that when a truck is loaded, the contents of the pallets are marked on the manifest and the certificate. From that point on, nothing is looked at. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) that we need to do more testing. I discussed that yesterday and again this morning with Lord Rooker. When this is all over, there will be a process of learning the lessons. I will be keen to establish more systematic testing of products so that we actually look at the material. That answers some of the hon. Lady’s questions about the Freeza plant in Northern Ireland. At the moment, the system is very much paper-based and too much is taken on trust.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the lessons that has already been learned is that it is a fallacy that people can have cheap food and quality food? The two do not go hand in hand. We have to educate the marketplace and the consumer that if people want good-quality, tasty food, they have to pay for it. Chasing the notion of cheap food, which many supermarkets have done irresponsibly, will be the ruination of a vital industry.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but I think that we have to be careful. There are citizens in this country who want to buy a product for speed and convenience, but who do not want to pay a premium price. They deserve exactly the same rigorous quality standards and exactly the same adherence to what is on the label as everybody else. If they buy a cheaper product marked “processed beef”, they should jolly well get processed beef. They should be as aggrieved as anyone who buys the most expensive sirloin steak if what they buy is not what it says on the label. If people in this country buy a cheap product, they should get a good product that conforms to the label. That is an important principle for consumers and one that I have discussed with the retailers.
Before the meetings tomorrow, will the Secretary of State ensure that product checks have been carried out on exports from other European countries that have come into Britain? Will he take the best legal advice from the Department or the top Government lawyers on the possibility of using the Cassis de Dijon case as the basis of turning down inferior products until such time as it is shown whether they are being passed off as something that they are not? That would be entirely legal under the Food Safety Act 1990 and EU food labelling regulations.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her question. I bow to her knowledge on these matters as a former Member of the European Parliament. I discussed that matter briefly with Commissioner Borg yesterday. He confirmed what I had said over the weekend: unless there is a threat to public health and safety, there are no grounds for stopping imports. Fraudulent labelling and mislabelling are quite wrong, but he made it clear during our brief conversation, on which I hope to elaborate tomorrow, that those were not grounds for preventing the importation of a material within the European Union. However, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and I will check the details of the regulations that she mentions. I promise that I will raise her point in the discussions tomorrow.
The point is that when lasagne that are sold as beef contain up to 100% horsemeat, there is a clear danger of contamination by bute in those products. As such, surely they would satisfy the test of being a danger to human health.
My hon. Friend raises an important question that came up yesterday. We have to take note of the clear advice given by the chief medical officer yesterday:
“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”.
The meat content of the lasagne that was mentioned at the weekend, for example, was as low as 15%, so one would have to eat an extraordinarily large amount of this material to ingest a quantity of bute that would exceed the warning of the chief medical officer.
I am conscious that other Members want to get in, so I will press on and make a little more progress.
It is clear that complex cross-European supply networks are involved in these incidents. I understand that Comigel was supplying customers in 16 European countries. That is why I have pressed hard for a European response. Yesterday, my Irish, French and Romanian counterparts, and the commissioner, were enthusiastic and united in wanting to work closely with us. I look forward to taking those discussions further tomorrow in Brussels.
I have made it clear to the food industry that I expect to see meaningful results from its product testing by this Friday. The results will be published as they become available.
May I push the Secretary of State further on testing? Has he ordered the testing of gelatine and gelatine-based products for horse DNA? If horse DNA is found in gelatine, it would be a serious contamination of the human food chain, particularly because it would extend to food such as children’s sweets.
The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. However, like many Opposition Members, he is asking me to impinge on the operational independence of the Food Standards Agency, which makes decisions on the details. [Hon. Members: “Is the FSA testing that?”] I have made it clear to the food industry and the FSA that I expect to see meaningful results from the tests by Friday. I repeat what I said yesterday: consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label. It is outrageous that consumers appear to have been misled by what appears to be a deliberate fraud.
It is important to distinguish between test results that indicate trace levels of DNA of an undeclared species and gross adulteration. So far, the results indicating flagrant adulteration have been limited to those products from the Silvercrest plant in Ireland and Comigel. It is too early to say whether they are indicative of a wider problem or isolated examples of such fraud. Either way, any case of fraud on the consumer is unacceptable, and I want all such cases to be pursued vigorously and those responsible brought to justice.
That is a perfectly valid question, but it is too early to tell. I will probably learn more in meetings tomorrow. Minister Le Foll is investigating in France to try to get to the bottom of things. The French are checking invoices, manifests, trucking times and arrival times to find out what is behind the contamination. As I said yesterday, Minister Constantin was emphatic that the procedures in Romania are correct, which is why I made a call this afternoon to the Dutch Minister. We know that something somewhere is going horribly wrong, and we are determined to work closely to get to the bottom of it.
I am looking at the clock and must push on.
The criminal justice system in the UK and across Europe is taking this very seriously. We are ready to act in whatever way is justified by the emerging facts. I shall repeat myself, because it is important that Opposition Members understand this: overall, food safety is a European competence. Council regulation 178/2002 confirms that food operators have primary responsibility for food safety and quality. In the UK, under the system this Government inherited, the independent Food Standards Agency is the lead enforcement authority for food safety and authenticity.
That is absolutely glorious! Labour Members are attacking their own creation. That is one of the institutions they created and of which they are most proud. In previous food crises, they said politicians must not be involved and that there should be an independent agency. However, the hon. Gentleman is attacking the independent FSA, which is run effectively by Lord Rooker, who I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows well, because they are ex-colleagues. As a coalition, we are co-operating to see whether we can make the system work. There are improvements to make—I will come to those—but we are working with the FSA and respecting its independence. That is why, while the issue one of DNA and before the step change of the Findus case, we left the independent agency to take the prime lead. It is not appropriate for me to infringe on its independence.
Many cases of poor food hygiene and food adulteration are dealt with effectively by that route. The police would take the lead only if there were evidence of serious, organised criminality in the UK. The FSA identified that such criminality was potentially involved and last week alerted both the Metropolitan police and Europol. The FSA’s investigations are ongoing. The police are well aware of the developing situation, but at what point they take the lead is a judgment for them and the FSA, based on the evidence. It is not a decision for me or the shadow Secretary of State. We must respect the independence of the police.
The Opposition have made a great deal of the risks to consumers in Europe of horses slaughtered in the UK because of possible residues of the drug bute. In line with advice from the chief medical officer, the Government have tightened the system we inherited. Last week, we moved to 100% testing of horses slaughtered at abattoirs, and accelerated the rate at which tests can be completed. As of yesterday, no carcase will be released unless and until it has tested negative for bute. However, I remind the House that, to the extent that some carcases with bute residues may have in the past entered the human food chain in Europe, 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 indeed that it will cause any harm to health.
The British food and farming industries are two of this country’s great success stories. I will not let them be talked down. The food industry has continued to grow during the current difficult economic conditions. Its export performance in particular has been strong. In 2010, the UK food and drink industry contributed £90 billion gross value to the economy, and in 2011 achieved exports worth £18.2 billion, of which meat and meat products accounted for £1.7 billion.
Food and drink manufacturing is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, employing some 3.2 million people. Jobs in the UK depend in part on consumer confidence in processed meat products. That is why I have emphasised the importance of food businesses taking rapid steps to reassure consumers and overseas markets by testing all their processed beef products and making the results public. Transparency is key to confidence.
The Government will do whatever necessary to ensure that British farmers and food manufacturers have access to export markets. That includes ensuring that British food is recognised for its rigorous standards and traceability, and that our producers do not get a bad reputation owing to the Europe-wide horsemeat incidents—the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) was spot on in that respect.
The food industry also needs to look to the future and embrace new technologies.
The Secretary of State made the point yesterday that tracing processed meat products is a paper chase. I am keen that we have proper inspections of the meat and meat products that come into this country, so that we can see what is in the lorries, which is otherwise signed off when it comes into the UK.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I confirmed a few minutes ago that I am concerned that the problem is a paper-based system. The problem is that there is too much faith—the certificate and manifest on the content of pallets is taken on trust and there is not enough testing of the material. I will discuss that with Commissioner Borg tomorrow, as I discussed it yesterday and today with Lord Rooker. We agree we can improve on the current system within the current arrangements by introducing some form of testing regime. Lord Rooker had some interesting ideas on how we might do that. My favoured concept is a form of random testing, but he might be more systematic. There will be a lessons-learned exercise afterwards, which I am keen to push on with.
On new technologies, the UK Government invest more than £410 million annually in research in the agriculture, food and drink sector. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science on the agri-tech strategy. There is a lot that is positive that we can do and are doing to help the British food and farming sectors make the most of their excellent products and high standards. I think we are all agreed on the need to maintain confidence, and that is not helped by muddying the waters with misleading suggestions that the current investigations are not being pursued vigorously and seriously. From my exchanges with the FSA chairman and industry leaders, I know that this issue is being taken very seriously across the whole food chain. Of course, we shall look at the lessons to be learned from these problems once the immediate incidents have been resolved. As I have just said, I am convinced we have a system that involves too much trust in paper-based systems and we need to look at better testing of actual products.
My top priority in the coming days and weeks will be to back the FSA as it follows through its investigations, and to collaborate with European Ministers, the Commission and the UK food industry to root out unacceptable practices and to rebuild justified confidence in food, in support of consumers. Consumers must have confidence in the products that they buy for themselves and their families. We must all work together to ensure that that is the case.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and the Opposition on securing such a timely debate on the eve of the discussions that the Secretary of State will have in Europe with his counterparts, and on the back of two meetings with industry. Today, we should be celebrating the food industry for the reasons that the hon. Lady set out and the people it employs. I represent one of the largest meat-producing constituencies. We celebrate Thirsk having the largest fatstock mart in the country, and Malton having a smaller mart. Farm-gate prices are falling and there is currently a crisis in the sheep industry. It is widely recognised that we are worried about the state of the lamb industry in the north of England; we fear that many sheep producers may go out of business.
We perhaps ought to take a lesson from this issue and revise our eating habits as consumers. When I was brought up I remember having a small roast with the family on a Sunday and using leftovers to go into other dishes during the week. Were we to do that and encourage manufacturers from now on to take British-sourced beef into processed and frozen foods, that would be the speediest way to restore confidence in the food industry. Retailers accept their responsibility and have risen to the challenge set by the Secretary of State. My concern is this. I am proud to have the Food and Environment Research Agency headquarters in my constituency at Sand Hutton near York, but it seems perverse that we continue to accept contaminated and suspect meat consignments, testing within a week and with the results by Friday, yet we now may have to re-export some of the suspect meats to Germany and elsewhere for testing. That is a little bit gross and I hope that that will not be the case.
I will dwell for a moment on what I believe the Secretary of State and the Government can do. Before I do so, I assure the hon. Member for Wakefield that insofar as Dalepak is concerned—it will issue a statement to this effect—the trace in its consignment was found to be less than 1%. Under present rules, that is not deemed to be contaminated meat. It would help everybody if we stopped talking about contamination when there is a trace. We need to move the debate on to what is a trace, and at some stage the FSA or the Department will have to say what trace is acceptable. We are never going to get an entire sample free of any trace, for perfectly understandable reasons.
I take on board what the hon. Lady says. I believe that the tests that are being conducted will look for equine presence up to 1%, not to 0.1%. That relates to the pork found last week in halal products that were supplied to a prison. Is she saying that it is not possible to guarantee to consumers from certain faith groups that we can never get rid of traces of other animals? What does that mean for factories branding themselves as halal? Does that mean that they can no longer deal with pork products?
That is a separate debate. We would need to look at the costs of two separate lines, one for beef and one for pork. We need to reconsider what is acceptable as a trace and differentiate that from contamination. This debate is about gross contamination of 60% to 100%, and that is what is so offensive to consumers.
We need an assurance—whether from Romania, France, Poland, Ireland, Sweden or wherever—that exporting countries in the EU are conducting both physical and product labelling checks at the point of export. Until we have that assurance from the Commission, consumers will not have much confidence in the process. It is my firm, personal belief that if product checks had taken place, food contaminated with horsemeat would never have entered the food chain. However, the fact is that it is in the food chain; as far as we know, it is continuing to enter the food chain; and we are continuing to find more contamination in frozen foods.
I practised in the EU many years ago, so my knowledge of EU law is extremely rusty, but the Cassis de Dijon case involved the passing off of an inferior alcoholic product as Cassis to go into such drinks as kir royale and other luxury products. The inferior product clearly did not fit the bill. I understand that the member state concerned was allowed, for a temporary period, to suspend imports of products being passed off as something else until such time as a ruling could be given.
All I am asking is for the Government to stop this chain of events. There are 27 member states, or however many there are now, relying on the Food Safety Act 1990, which is entirely compatible with European food labelling regulations. I would imagine that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have huge support from all other member states in the European Union, but until we can again inspire confidence in the food industry and allow the retailers to get on with what they are good at—delivering safe, healthy food to our supermarkets—then we ought to recognise what other hon. Members have said today. This is an opportunity to recognise the excellence of British-produced beef, and to try to see to what extent that can be used.
I accept the Secretary of State’s point about a premium product now going for premium prices, but he must accept that the labelling provisions, the traceability and the additional animal welfare conditions that we in this country uniquely impose on our producers have increased costs. Farm-gate prices are going down. Feed costs have gone up. The cost of transporting animals to slaughter has gone up. Slaughterhouses are fewer and further apart. We ought to use this as an opportunity to encourage retailers to look to sourcing locally produced beef for their processed and frozen products. I celebrate the contribution of the beef industry and other meat industries to the UK, not just to locally sourced food. Much that is produced in Thirsk, Malton and Filey will go abroad for breeding purposes, because of the uniqueness and life history of each particular herd.
This debate is timely. Perhaps the FSA has been caught on the back foot. When in November the FSA was told by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that DNA tests were to be conducted on particular products entering the food chain through our supermarkets, it was a wake-up call to the FSA here to do similar tests. It was of concern to the Select Committee to hear that the original contamination could have been in the food chain for up to one year—who knows, it might have been longer. We need to get to the bottom of this. I accept the assurance that criminal proceedings will follow, but we all know that the wheels of the law move extremely slowly. The Secretary of State has the opportunity tomorrow to take this argument to Europe. It is a Europe-wide problem so we must have a Europe-wide solution. I believe that the answer lies in our food-labelling provisions and European law. I hope that this debate will give him all power to his elbow in tomorrow’s negotiations.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State mention trust in his speech, because it lies at the heart of this public policy issue. We need to ensure that the regulatory and legislative framework provides trust to consumers eating food off the plate. They need to know that what they buy in the supermarket is what it says on the label.
The incident involving Findus UK is instructive. I am speaking today because, when I asked the Secretary of State a question yesterday, his answer led me to believe that he was not in possession of the facts. On this occasion, I have a reasonable suspicion that it was not his fault. I think at best it was because very clever crisis public relations people had obfuscated the facts, but it might also be possible that people have been deliberately withholding the facts from the Secretary of State and his Department. In order to make my case, I need to go through the timeline of events.
I want one thing to come out of my contribution: for the Secretary of State and his team to redouble their efforts when they scrutinise what happened at Findus. In the past 24 hours, since yesterday’s Question Time, I have assembled a timeline of what I think happened. On Tuesday 29 January, Findus Group received initial test results from the Eurofins lab in Germany suggesting that horsemeat DNA had entered its beef lasagne products. By Wednesday 30 January, Findus UK had decided to quarantine the beef lasagne in its wholesale warehouses. At some point over the next few days, it would have had confirmation of the initial lab results. Experts in the industry tell me that would usually happen within 48 hours, so I am working on the assumption that it had confirmation of the test results by Thursday 31 January.
On Saturday 2 February, Comigel wrote to Findus UK asking it to withdraw its beef lasagne products, explaining that it could not guarantee the integrity of the supply chain of its products from as early as the previous August. It wanted its beef products withdrawn. On Monday 4 February, Findus communicated this information to major UK retailers, and I understand that the big retailers started to withdraw those products late on Monday evening. The rest of us understood that on Wednesday 6 February, because The Sun revealed it in a news report. Late afternoon on Thursday 7 February, the company confirmed that its beef lasagne products contained horsemeat. On Friday morning, my researcher in West Bromwich bought a Findus frozen lasagne in a shop in my constituency—so they were still available to my constituents—and yesterday the Secretary of State announced that on Saturday 9 February he had a conversation with Leendert den Hollander, the boss of the sister company to Findus UK, Young’s.
From that timeline arise several searching questions that we need to put to Findus, and I would like to share them with the remaining Ministers on the Front Bench. I know that they cannot answer them straight away, but I would like to get them on the record. First, given that the company had a reasonable suspicion that its supply chain was contaminated—or whatever word we want to use—on Tuesday 29 January, why did it not issue an immediate withdrawal of products, a product recall and a refund strategy for its customers? These were frozen goods that people stored in their freezers to eat at some point in the future, so the refund strategy would have been important.
The test results were obviously important enough to the company for it to decide to quarantine products as early as Wednesday, but not for it to remove products from the retail section. On what day did the lab results confirm beyond doubt that there was horsemeat in Findus food? That would have been the day when any company adhering to basic forms of corporate social responsibility would have pressed the red button. The company said that it was informed, in writing on Saturday 2 February by Comigel that its supply chain was contaminated. When was it told by telephone and/or e-mail? Finally, given that the company was told on Saturday 2 February that its second and third-tier suppliers could not guarantee the ingredients in the product, why did it not urgently and immediately issue a product recall on the Saturday, but instead leave it until the Monday evening?
Why do I think this is important? I honestly say to both Front-Bench teams that our respective views of the markets do not matter here—obviously, Ministers and I will differ about the markets—because even the driest economist and greatest adherent of laissez faire in the market would still consider this a market failure that needed addressing. On my side of the political and economic debate, this is probably the most perfect example of predatory capitalism I have ever seen. Findus UK was a company in crisis. Private equity investors took possession of the company a few years ago, started putting pressure on the supply chain and refinanced the company. I think that that pressure led to corporate failure and its failure to do the right thing.
This is how capitalism eats its young. It gobbles up our money and our health, it scoffs down our dignity and our children’s safety. We eat whatever it puts in the box, and it calls it whatever it likes. I say “we”, but that does not include one man, and his name is Mr Dale Morrison, who right now is sitting on the 43rd floor of his Manhattan offices on Wall street, failing to get a grip of the biggest food fraud this country has probably ever seen. That is a failure of capitalism, whatever side of the House we sit on.
The Chair of the Select Committee was quite right when she said that when the matter was first identified in Ireland about four weeks ago two separate issues were conflated: first, the small amount of contamination of beef products by another species, which was clearly an example of negligence or poor management; and, secondly, the discovery that a beef product contained 29% horsemeat, which was clearly the result of deliberate fraud in order to make an exorbitant profit. It was then, and is now, clear that this was a criminal activity and must be treated as such, but that was not seized upon by Irish officials early enough in the process.
Illegal meat trading has been a widespread and persistent crime, but because of the regulation in this country it has been largely or totally eliminated. It is noticeable that the problems we are now facing have their origin outside the UK. We know that criminal gangs involved in smuggling goods, including drugs, and people trafficking are also likely to be involved in illegal meat trading. The profits are high and the penalties usually moderate. Apart from the adulteration of meat, other forms of criminal activity include introducing unfit meat that has been condemned for human consumption back into the human food chain. Bushmeat has also been illegally imported into this country, although that has largely been eliminated by the use of sniffer dogs at Heathrow. These are all criminal activities.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware, but we ran the UK bushmeat campaign almost a decade ago. When I took precisely that issue—bushmeat coming in through British airports and into Dalston market—to Tim Smith, the then chief executive of the FSA, he positively refused to do anything about it.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and I know he was very active in this matter. Indeed, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in this House to reorganise the port authorities and get a better grip on the issue.
The Secretary of State was right to say that it is the responsibility of retailers to guarantee proper descriptions and the safety of their products, but there must be a co-ordinated effort to stamp out this crime. It is up to the retailers, the Food Standards Agency, trading standards, port authorities, the European Food Safety Agency and, in particular, the police, including Europol, to work together to root out these offences. I cannot emphasise enough the role of the police and their investigative skills in working across borders to combat this trade.
Although I am confident that tests will show that such products are not harmful to health, until we can trace the origin of the horsemeat, we cannot say with any certainty that it is safe. Safety depends on traceability, and traceability means being able to follow the food chain from the owner of the animal and its transportation to the abattoir to where the carcase was broken down into joints and mince and sold.
We take traceability extremely seriously in Rossendale and Darwen, where we have many livestock farmers. The encouraging part of this crisis is the increase in trade with local butchers, who offer the best way of knowing where one’s meat has come from. Whitehead’s in Edgworth, Riley’s in Crawshawbooth and Turner’s in Darwen are all butchers selling locally produced meat—one can look out of the window and see the animals.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that; I may come to a similar point later. He is quite right. Indeed, I should have declared an interest, as I am a livestock farmer producing beef, and I can surely tell everybody that the amount of paperwork and records that need to be kept are now proving their worth, because we can demonstrate that British food is safe and good to eat.
The key is finding out at what stage wrongly described horsemeat was introduced into the food chain. We know that the food chain is extremely long, complicated and convoluted, but we do not yet know where the horsemeat was introduced. We therefore do not know who the victims of the fraud are and who the perpetrators are. Until we can find out, we will not complete the work. However, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the ultimate victims of the fraud are, as always, the consumers, who have been duped into eating a product that they did not wish to eat.
The excellent traceability in the UK food industry means that meat produced and sold as British in the UK is safe and unadulterated. It is easy properly to identify a piece of sirloin, a steak or, indeed, a piece of oxtail, but that is much more difficult with processed and ready-meal products. Labelling is problematic, because there might be many different foods from different sources in different countries, put together in different proportions in one product. In the long term, lessons must be learned, particularly about regulating the food chain across borders.
To respond to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), in the short term, using one’s local butcher is probably best—I could mention a number of butchers, but I shall not as I would probably miss out one or two worthy local tradespeople. For a long time, they have had to compete against large supermarkets that have once again shown that their first interest is serving their shareholders, rather than their consumers and suppliers. It is time to repay our local butchers with our custom.
We have heard a lot in this important debate about producer interests. I want to detain the House for a few minutes to talk about the interests of consumers and to remind the House that, even as we speak, there are mums—and dads, too—hovering over the frozen food cabinets of their corner shops, supermarkets or favourite frozen food stores, looking at their favourite processed meat product and saying, “Is this what it says it is? Is it even safe?” For those ordinary mums and dads up and down the country, it is not enough for Ministers to hide behind this or the other quango, as this horsemeat scandal has clear public health implications—possible implications, but implications none the less. There is a public health dimension, so responsibility falls fairly and squarely on Government.
We are relieved in the House today to understand that at this point there is no evidence that antibiotics or other drugs have entered the food chain. That is what we know today, but we know from previous food scandals that what we know this week may change week on week. It is the public health aspect that makes this an issue for Government. It is the public’s belief—it is a belief as old as the Chamber itself—that when it comes to the adulteration of foodstuffs, whether it is watered-down milk in the Victorian era or horsemeat in lasagne in 2013, they can look to Government to take some responsibility.
The other point to make is that we should not forget that this scandal affects the very poorest in our community and their children. Who, really, is eating £1 lasagne and so-called value burgers? Who buys those things, except the very poorest in communities such as mine? Often they feed them to children. I hear people saying, “Oh, you’d have to eat an awful lot of these things for there to be any discernible effect on your health,” but I put it to Ministers, who might not be aware of this, that there are families in communities such as mine who eat an awful lot of cheap, processed food. They deserve absolute assurances about its quality, not Ministers hiding behind quangos.
It must concern anyone taking an interest in this debate that the whistle was blown not by the Food Standards Agency in England, but by the Food Safety Authority in Ireland. What does that say about the processes and procedures in the British Isles? There are issues with the break-up and reorganisation of the FSA and the loss of trading standards officers locally. Serious issues have also been raised for some time about the cuts to the Meat Hygiene Service, so for Ministers to say that the ultimate responsibility lies somewhere else is not something that the British public accept or believe for a second. It is no coincidence that this issue has been headline news for some days in the British media, whether they ostensibly support the Government or not. I believe that it will continue to be headline news until it plays itself out, because historically there has been no issue of greater concern to British families than the quality of the food that they eat.
A fundamental issue arising from the horsemeat scandal is the price of cheap food. All along the food chain, relentless pressure has been exerted for decades to drive down costs at the farm gate, and at production, manufacturing and retail levels. There are obviously sections of the British community who cannot afford expensive products, but the main pressure on costs comes from the massive retail chains.
I entirely agree. The pressure on costs inevitably means pressure on quality. Instead of cutting back institutions such as the Meat Hygiene Service and reorganising and destabilising the FSA, the Government should be putting more resources and effort into guaranteeing the quality of food, right down to the cheapest products being bought by the poorest members of our communities.
I will not; I want to make some progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) made an important point that relates to my points about pressures on costs and business pressures. He mentioned the delay in Findus withdrawing its products. It seems to be the case that Findus delayed withdrawing its products until after the weekend so that it could move another 100,000 units and bolster its profits. This is what I mean about the pressures; they are inimical to ensuring that our people can purchase a quality product, even at the lowest cost. My hon. Friend referred to the chief executive officer of Findus, Dale Morrison. Even as we are debating the issue in Parliament and our constituents are wondering whether the processed meat product of their choice is safe, he is sitting in his skyscraper in Manhattan, apparently oblivious to our cares so long as he can see the share price of Findus going in the right direction.
There are public health questions that need to be answered. The quality of our foodstuffs is too important a matter to be left to the moral sense of private equity predators. I believe that this issue has a long way to run. The Government should not be hiding behind civil servants or quangos. They must accept their moral responsibility for the quality of the food that our people purchase in the shops, and for any possible threat to public health.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). In many ways, I shall continue the theme that she has introduced, albeit possibly from a different perspective. There are many other Members who know a lot more than I do about traceability and supply chain management, but I have done quite a lot of work on the food system as a whole.
Let us be frank: we are facing a crisis in the food system. The crisis relates not to the replacement horsemeat that we are discussing today. That is just one of the symptoms of the crisis relating to the cost of food. The food system, particularly in this country, is designed around cheap food. That is a business model that has developed over many decades, and it is because that model is changing that we are now seeing fraud within the system.
In the UK, food prices have risen dramatically over the past five years. The 32% increase in that period is double the EU average, and the problem is going to get worse. In April, we are likely to see a significant price increase owing to the American drought. The Russians have been imposing intermittent restrictions on exports, and it is extremely worrying that Ukraine, which has signed a debt swap with the Chinese, is seeking to secure that debt swap with its food commodities. Ukraine has been acting as Europe’s traditional hedging supplier for cost reduction in raw commodities.
The crisis is that the era of cheap food is now over. We all need to put in place policies and strategies to achieve the difficult result of smoothing the transition to a higher-priced food sector and ensuring that, despite the price rises, the families the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington was talking about will be able to feed themselves with quality food and be sure that the food they are putting on their tables is what it says on the package.
I have not heard the Opposition put forward any strategies to address the fundamental issue that we are facing globally. Let me put some thoughts on that to the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). First, the supermarkets —and possibly we politicians—must start to be straight with the public about rising food prices. Maybe after this disaster we will start to face up to the realities. It is not the supermarkets or the manufacturers that are absorbing the price rises; it is the consumers. Horsemeat replacement products are the result of a flawed business model, in that that has been seen as the only way to square the ludicrous circle of having cheap food in the shops and rocketing food prices in the supply chain.
Consumers are suffering not only from fraudulent food but from the substitution of the best ingredients with what some people call “arterial Polyfilla”. The £1 cottage pie in the local freezer shop that the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington mentioned might have been the same price for the past five years, but will it still have the same contents? Will it contain less meat and have more high-fructose corn syrup, which some people call “heart attack central”? Packaging is also absorbing more price rises. Are people aware of how much fresh air they are buying in their cereal packets? Also, 60% of all products in supermarkets are now on promotion, but some of those promotions are misleading, as Which?, published by the Consumers Association, has rightly highlighted in its report on food promotions.
I am sure that the Government are now taking a new look at food policy. Over the past 15 years, they have more or less devolved the relationship between the consumer and food to the supermarkets. That has never been right, but it cannot now continue. We need to re-engineer our food policy around consumers, not around producers or retailers. We need to move from a “cheap as chips” model to one in which we value food. The new food cost reality might ultimately be better for the public and for our producers, but the transition is already very painful.
When I talk to the poorest families in my constituency, they tell me that they cannot afford to go to the supermarket any more. I might as well ask them whether they go to Harvey Nichols or Harrods. They get their food from pound shops, Aldi, Lidl, corner shops and street markets. Chips from the takeaway with ketchup or brown sauce will be dinner for the family.
Some of our strategies are interesting. They cover cooking and eating more healthily. Change for Life is a fantastic health programme in this country. The problem is, however, that Change for Life as a message is difficult when some of my families do not have enough time to change their clothes and they are in many ways intimidated by the thought of that type of proposition.
I am enjoying the hon. Lady’s speech a great deal, but I wonder where she is going with it. It is not necessarily a bad thing—I just wondered whether I could pre-empt the point she is perhaps coming on to. She said that we have to be realistic about the value of food. I felt that she was preparing us all to pay more for our food. How does that equate with her obvious sympathy with the poorest families in her constituency? How will they manage to make that leap if incomes stay as low as they are?
I think that that is a false choice. The issue is that we have stopped valuing, understanding and being able to use food. One thing has been a huge asset: this week, the Secretary of State for Education announced that food preparation and food cooking will be part of the national curriculum. Through such moves, we are creating a more resilient public. We cannot get away from the fact that global food prices are rising. We must support the poorest families in that transition. I do not believe that we need to eat less well, despite the rise in the food prices. What we need to do is to have greater transparency, much more resilience and greater skills to be able to use food more effectively.
Poorer families will be making cheaper choices, so it is crucial that labelling is transparent. Where is the flash on that cottage pie saying “30% less meat”? Government also need to look at tightening some of the regulations on food promotion. Products that are less expensive are going on promotion at more expensive prices. Retailers are shortening the period in which a product needs to be on full price before a discount is a true discount. That is another form of consumers absorbing price rises, but not absorbing them transparently.
We need not just a summit on food safety, but a commission on our whole food system, focusing on the consumer and ensuring that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the public who are going to have to manage the painful transition from a “cheap as chips” food model to a more expensive one. Families should be able to feed themselves as well in the new model if we provide the support and ensure that the retailers do not try to pretend that nothing has changed.
Burying our heads in the sand has got us to where we are now. Customers have had to face either lack of transparency or the actual experience of food fraud. Horsemeat in my view is only the beginning of this food crisis, if we do not face up to the realities of rising food prices and become the champion of the consumer.
I congratulate the shadow DEFRA Front-Bench team on pursuing this issue relentlessly and on choosing it as a topic for today’s debate. We had a statement yesterday, but there is a lot more to be thrashed out on this issue. I therefore greatly welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate.
This issue is important not only because it has exposed the scandal of horsemeat adulterating our food chain, but because of the spotlight it throws on the meat industry more generally—what Felicity Lawrence referred to in The Guardian on Saturday as
“the hidden unsavoury food world, in which live animals are transported vast distances across borders for slaughter, before being shipped back again in blocks of frozen offcuts that may be stored for months on end before being ground down to unrecognisable ingredients in our everyday meals”.
Lord Haskins, a farmer and the former chairman of Northern Foods—someone who definitely knows his topic—has warned that there is “endemic, institutional fraud” in the food industry. It is not enough to get to the bottom of whether there is hitherto unidentified horsemeat—or is it donkey?—in meat products on sale in the UK, or to discover whether halal products are contaminated with pork; we need to look at the whole meat industry because who knows what other scandals have yet to come to light?
We are all familiar with the past controversy about beef hormones in our meat and the EU ban in the wake of mad cow disease some years ago. Some may be familiar, too, with the more recent controversy in the USA over what the meat industry likes to refer to as “lean finely textured beef” or “boneless lean beef trimmings”. That may sound fine, but this is more commonly known as “pink slime”, which sounds much less appetising. It is used as a filler in beef products and is produced by processing low-grade beef trimmings, cartilage, connective tissue and sinew, and mechanically separating the lean beef from the fat by heating it to 100° F.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government have just concluded a consultation on the EU food information for consumers regulation, under which they are asking for a derogation so that they do not have to reveal that information on the label to the public in Britain? Mince, which is not allowed to be sold with 35% and 15% respectively of fat and collagen in it, will not be allowed to be sold on the continent, but it will be sold in Britain under that derogation.
Exactly. I raised that very issue with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday, and I have to say from his response that it looked as if it was the first he had heard of it; he simply said that we rely on scientific advice, which I think is scandalous.
I am just halfway through my description of the process involved in producing pink slime. The recovered beef material is then processed, heated and treated with gaseous ammonia or citric acid to kill bacteria. It is then finely ground, compressed into pellets, flash frozen and shipped for use as an additive. There was a public outcry over this issue a while ago, and we saw Jamie Oliver appearing on American TV decrying its use. There was a real backlash, and companies such as McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell announced that they would discontinue its use. There was also an outcry about it appearing in meals in the public sector, and promises were made that that would no longer happen. Once consumers knew that there was pink slime in their food, they did not want it and wanted the meat industry to stop producing it.
There is also a substance that has become colloquially known as “white slime” in meat products. It is officially known as “mechanically separated meat” or “mechanically recovered meat”. This is the product most likely to be used in highly processed meat products such as burgers or pies. It is a paste-like product produced by forcing beef, pork, turkey or chicken under high pressure through a sieve to get every last little scrap of meat off the bone. Questions have been raised about its safety and some have argued there should be limits on how much of it should be used in a food product—for example, no more than 20% is allowed in hot dogs. The fact is, however, that consumers do not realise that this is in their hot dogs. Finally, there is advanced meat recovery, which separates meat from bone by scraping, shaving or pressing the meat from the bone—again, typically used in hot dogs.
Let me quote what John Harris said in an excellent article in yesterday’s The Guardian—it may sound a bit of a cliché to keep quoting this newspaper, but it is not particularly fond of vegetarians generally. He said that EU regulations insist that if a product is to be called “meat”, it has to be
“skeletal muscle with naturally included or adherent fat and connective tissue”.
He said that our Food Standards Agency insists that economy beefburgers must contain at least 40% of this product, which must come from cows. That is not very reassuring; I think people expect their beefburgers to have beef in them, not cartilage, fat and connective tissue.
In talking about the relentless search for profits from cheap food, John Harris cited a Financial Times article saying that Findus products came from a factory in Luxembourg, which was supplied with meat by a company in south-west France, which had acquired frozen meat from a Cypriot trader that had subcontracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands—who was then supplied from an abattoir and butcher located in Romania. As John Harris says, how messed up has our food system become? All this is a far cry from the sort of meat that many Members praised during yesterday’s statement on horsemeat. The advisability of buying local meat from a local farm sold by a local butcher was highlighted, where the path from the pasture to the plate is a matter of public record. Indeed, I have heard people saying that they take local sourcing so far that they even know the name of the cow they are consuming.
It is very easy to say that, and in ideal world, people would be looking to buy organically reared locally produced products, but that is very expensive. Yes, it can be said that people should try to cook their own food and source it locally instead of buying ready-made meals, but I am sure many MPs grab a ready meal from Tesco or Marks and Spencer on their way home after a vote. We should not be too judgmental about people who turn to value ranges and ready-made meals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said. If someone has only a couple of pounds left in their purse and there is a £1 lasagne ready meal or an eight-pack of Tesco economy burgers left in the shop, they will buy one of those rather than buying the mince, the sheets of pasta, the flour, the butter, the tomatoes, the herbs and the cheese that they would need to make lasagne from scratch. Many people do not even have the necessary cooking facilities in any case. I have seen single men in my constituency living in bedsits with just a microwave for cooking.
This should not seem like rocket science to the hon. Lady. If I told her that I could flog her a cheap telly, she would think to herself, “There must be something wrong with that TV.” It does not strike me as much of an extension of that argument to suggest that if those processed meat products are so much cheaper than other products, their quality will not be the same.
Sometimes people simply do not have a choice between buying the slightly dodgy knock-off cheap telly that has probably come off the back of a lorry and going to one of the high street shops and buying a top-of-a-range brand. That is the point that I am trying to make. People may well know that what they are eating is not as good as the organic produce that is sold in, for instance, The Better Food Company, an organic supermarket in Bristol, but they do not have the option of going there. As I have said, even if people had enough money to buy more than one day’s food and could plan ahead and try to cook their own meals, they would still not be buying premium “best of British” mince. They would be buying the sort of mince that was mentioned just now by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), and about which I asked the Secretary of State yesterday. If the Government manage to find their way around European Union regulations, that mince could be up to 50% fat and collagen, and other substances that are not meat, without the consumer’s being any the wiser.
We need to get the message across to Government Members. We are living in a world in which people’s cost of living is being squeezed from all sides. Their incomes and benefits are being cut, their rents are going up, and fuel prices, fares and food prices are rising. Obviously they will buy the packet of eight Tesco value burgers for £1, because they have no other option. According to statistics released last week by Mintel, the market research company, some 30% of consumers now buy budget ranges, as opposed to just one in five back in 2008. We cannot insist that everyone should buy the premium, locally sourced, top-of-the-range products, because some people simply cannot afford to do that. The important point, surely, is that all food should be of a decent quality, and all consumers should know what is in their food.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am about to end my speech.
That is the Government’s responsibility, and I was shocked by the Secretary of State’s complacency when he answered questions earlier. He is being very slow to act, but very quick to abdicate all responsibility and say that this is a matter for the Food Standards Agency. That is just not good enough. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that people have trust in the food that they eat.
It is slightly challenging to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who produced one of the best cases for vegetarianism that I have ever heard.
I fear that I shall veer off into some specifics, given my experience of working for a passport-issuing organisation and the fact that I understand just a little about the way in which horse passports are issued and the value or otherwise of the national equine database. I apologise in advance if what I say becomes a bit too specific for Members, but I think that that the House needs clarification of the problems and benefits of horse passports and also of the function of the database, which did nothing to assist traceability and the establishment of what drugs might or might not have been given to equines. However, I agree with the Secretary of State that the most important aspect of all this is public health and public confidence in our foodstuffs.
I entirely endorse the policy of 100% testing of the carcases of horses that have been slaughtered in the United Kingdom for phenylbutazone, or bute. It is impossible to establish whether a horse has been fed bute by looking at its passport. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) suggested that horses might have been injected with bute, but only very rarely is the substance administered intravenously. It is fed to horses in feedstuff. Not only is the possibility of cross-contamination incredibly likely, but bute is a very useful drug which is often given to horses that are elderly or slightly lame. It prolongs their useful life, and enables them to enjoy a better quality of life.
Bute is also extremely cheap, which means that, among both veterinary surgeons and horse owners, it is incredibly popular. If the life of a much-loved family pony can be extended by a further five or 10 years by one sachet of bute a day, those sachets will be administered. However, therein lies some of the problem. Bute is readily available from veterinary surgeons. While I would not suggest that horse owners are irresponsible, if a ready supply is prescribed for one horse—as might happen in the case that I have identified—what is to prevent me from giving it to another horse?
I have here a wonderful British horse passport, which should provide a complete veterinary record of every drug and vaccination given to that much-loved pony, but there is no record of its ever having been given bute in its life. It is absolute nonsense to suggest that the horse passport system will somehow inform those at the slaughterhouse of whether the pony has been given bute or not.
I commend the last Government for introducing the horse passport regulations, and for tightening them in 2009 with the introduction of microchipping. That was an important step forward, However, it is important to remember that the microchipping of foals was compulsory only from 2009 onwards. The odds of any horse over the age of four or five being chipped are fairly long. A competition horse that is regularly used and transported around the country, if it has been measured by the Joint Measurement Board, will have been microchipped, but that is unlikely to apply to an ordinary pony that has stood in the New Forest for many years of its life, or has been kept at home and not used in competitions. A horse that is presented for slaughter may or may not have a microchip.
The hon. Member for Wakefield said that it was perfectly legal to buy a microchip on the internet for 12p. That is true, but it is illegal to insert the chip into an equine. The check is there, but I would argue that it is much more common for horses to be presented at UK slaughterhouses without a microchip, and with a passport that may or may not have come from a recognised stud book. I can show the House two passports. One is fully pukka, and has come from a fantastic, historic equine charity—the oldest in the country—and the other is Irish, for a beast that has been through goodness knows how many sales in Ireland. However, it is the British passport that does not show that drugs have been administered, and the Irish one that does.
Let me now say something about the national equine database. There are some 1.3 million horses in the United Kingdom, some of which were registered on the database and some of which were not. I do not know whether the hon. Lady ever looked at NED, but I did. It had a fantastic competition record, but it did not show where a horse had been kept, what drugs had been administered or what the horse had been used for. There was simply no way of telling.
I personally lament the loss of NED because I cannot establish whether a competition record has been recorded accurately and therefore cannot boast about the potential and ability of a pony, but did the database show where I kept the pony? No. There are 10,000 licensed livery yards in the UK and many more unlicensed yards, and only about 70% of those 1.3 million horse owners keep their horses at home. There are, of course, all the other horses all around the country which may be in racehorse training or may be show jumpers or eventers. NED was utterly useless at showing where a horse was at any one time and what drugs had been administered to it.
I have made the plea that we should not necessarily regard phenylbutazone as an evil. It is not; it is a very useful drug. However, we must ensure that it is not in the human food chain, and the only way to do that is to adopt 100% testing. I would argue that given what has gone on abroad, all meat coming into this country should be tested. Who knows what has happened in Romanian slaughterhouses, and in slaughterhouses in other parts of the continent?
I am slightly disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) is no longer present, because I think that she has done some fantastic work on the transport of live animals and on live exports, which I think play a massive part in this debate. We must reach a point—although who knows how it can be achieved with the European Union?—at which animals are transported for far shorter distances and are not crossing an entire continent, and we can consider not only food traceability and safety but the welfare of those animals.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). As a former Minister for the horse, I remember the early days of horse passports. I always had my doubts that they would be able to do the job in relation to bute, and the hon. Lady has ably illustrated that they could not.
Perhaps there has been no better time at which to be a food criminal. This is a time of deep economic recession across Europe. The food supply chain is extraordinarily complex, too, with swift transit of goods and products across international borders and multiple regulatory frameworks on composition, safety and labelling, and in Romania there was the sudden enforcement of a recent law to remove horses and carts from the country’s roads.
Let us be clear: this scandal has involved the most extraordinary degree of corporate blindness. Tim Smith is the former chief executive of the FSA and is now head of food security at Tesco. He had the affront to tell the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 30 January that he thought this was a rogue event and that FSA Ireland chanced to do DNA testing on precisely the day when a rogue consignment of horsemeat just happened to be present. What is most extraordinary is not his pathetic naivety, but the fact that he is still in his job at Tesco two weeks later.
We know that excuses that begin with the words “Just one rogue trader” or “Just one rogue reporter” have an unhappy history. What Tesco sought to dismiss as just one bad day at the abattoir has now infected almost every major retailer not only in the UK, but across the continent: Tesco, Iceland. Aldi, Co-op and Lidl are joined by Carrefour, Casino, Auchan and Monoprix.
The supply chain for processed meat products was ripe for criminal activity. Findus in the UK was supplied by Comigel in France, which supplies retailers in 16 countries. The contaminated Findus products came from the Comigel factory in Luxembourg, but the meat came from south-west France, from a company called Spanghero, whose parent company is Poujol, which acquired the meat from Cypriot traders, who in turn had subcontracted the sourcing of the meat to a trader in the Netherlands. We are told this trader had sourced meat from an abattoir and butcher in Romania.
Interestingly, this information came not from our UK Secretary of State, but from France’s consumer affairs Minister, Benoît Hamon. In France, many people eat horse, of course, but just like we Rosbifs, they do not want to eat horse when they are paying for, and think that they are eating, beef.
More than 25 abattoirs in Romania are properly licensed to butcher and export horsemeat, but it must be properly labelled as horse. The key question in this fraud is at what point in the complex food chain did someone wilfully take off a label saying “horse” and replace it with a label saying “beef.” Today’s motion rightly calls on the Government to ensure that police and fraud specialists investigate that criminality.
I entirely agree, and that is why I am very pleased that the shadow Secretary of State has called on the Serious Fraud Office to look at this matter, as it has the remit and ability to address such complex cases.
How is it that all these supermarkets across Europe so singularly failed to identify the risk of substitution and contamination of their processed meat products? After all, these are the very supermarkets that drive our farmers to despair when they reject whole consignments of perfectly good fruit and vegetables because they are misshapen or blemished in some way. The point is not simply that supermarkets are unjust in their treatment of our farmers; they have the means and the will to do detailed and minute checks on their products when it is in their own interests to do so. Tesco and its ilk simply cared more that the pears they sold were the right conical shape than that the processed meat we bought was contaminated and of a different species than advertised.
Over the last decade, our UK farmers have done a magnificent job in improving animal welfare and food hygiene. The introduction of pride marks such as the red tractor scheme gives the public confidence that the food they are eating has a short supply chain and comes from local farmers who operate to the highest standards. Responsibility for food labelling policy lies with DEFRA. Its Ministers must now decide that food labels must clearly identify the country of origin. The lack of mandatory country of origin food labelling places British farmers at a disadvantage. British people want to buy British farm produce with confidence.
I have not always in the past quoted with total approval from Countryside Alliance press releases, but on this matter it is entirely right. It says:
“The lack of mandatory country of origin food labelling continues to place British farmers at a disadvantage when much of their competition comes from producers in countries, which are not subject to such robust animal welfare legislation and standards and the associated costs.”
On phenylbutazone or bute, the point is simply this: 156 tests were done last year, nine of which found the presence of bute, but 9,000 horses went through British abattoirs. On that ratio, some 520 carcases may well have been contaminated with bute—and, as the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, the tests might not have picked up all the horses with bute. There is an omission in the figures presented to us, too: we know the number of tests and the number of positives, but we do not know the number of prosecutions. If there were nine positive tests, why were there not nine positive prosecutions?
The FSA today announced its new system of positive release. The move away from a desk-based system of audit is welcome. In future, no horse carcase will be released for the food chain until it has been tested negative for bute. The FSA must have further powers, too, however. It must have the task of making risk-based assessments of the supply chain and of instructing supermarkets and retailers about the number of physical product checks that they must do on the basis of the volume they shift and the length and complexity of their supply chain. The FSA must also receive, as of right, all results from the tests that retailers carry out, whether under instruction from the FSA or on their own account.
I want to say one positive thing about what the Government are doing. We have heard in the past week that children will be taught at school how to cook. That is positive. They will no longer just put processed food in a microwave; they will be able to cook things from fresh produce for themselves. That will be a real advantage.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). Although he represents an urban constituency, he speaks with great knowledge and experience about the food industry, and has a reputation for doing so. May I also draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
This topic has not suddenly emerged over the past two and half years; the problem we are talking about today has been a long time coming, and therefore some of the comments from Opposition Members stick in my throat like a dodgy burger. They speak as if this Government have created this problem, but the entire situation has been changing since the second world war, when the proportion of cash an individual spent on their food bill was much larger than it is today. Then, families would have spent 60% of their income on food, but today that figure is much smaller and as such we have lost the context of how valuable our food is.
I drew an analogy with television, but we could say the same about car tyres. A person would never buy second-hand car tyres from someone offering them on the cheap, because they would instantly recognise that their individual safety could be at risk. However, we as consumers seem to have got into a position where we are happy to see the price of food fall and be driven down. We have lost the concept of how valuable our food is, and that has led us to the position we are in today.
The hon. Member for Brent North referred to the fact that the Education Secretary plans to reintroduce cooking and food to the curriculum, which is a great step forward. Two generations of consumer have lost contact with how food is produced and with how to cook raw product, and again, that is to the detriment of our food industry. If the Government can do anything, more education about how to cook food and deal with raw products will mean that consumers are able to buy better quality food for the same money if they learn to shop about and source food from the right places.
Today, UK agriculture finds itself in a different place from the rest of the world, but that is no fluke and comes from bitter experience. The BSE crisis in the UK taught the beef industry valuable lessons about consumer confidence and how the consumer needs to understand, know and have confidence in a product. Today we know that if we go to our local butcher, not only will they be able to sell us a very high-quality cut of meat or processed beefburger, but they will be able to identify the animal that the beefburger came from, as well as its mother and father. That is the level of traceability in the UK butchery industry today, and UK consumers should understand that. Certainly, when that is compared with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about the processed meat industry, and with some of the products sold as meat that normal people would not recognise as such, there is a strong message to deliver on behalf of the UK meat industry.
This is not rocket science: the shorter we make the chain, the easier it is to have such traceability, and labelling will be important as we move forward. We heard from the Opposition about how the labelling of our products should be more prominent, yet when they were in power, there were several private Members’ Bills and lobbying by the then Opposition to try to improve labelling and ensure that consumers understood where and how their food was being produced.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but surely the issue is about criminality, which is international. If a criminal changes the label, it does not matter whether the meat is British or comes from abroad; consumers will not have confidence.
I acknowledge that position, but my point is that given the traceability in the UK industry, the opportunity to change those labels is simply not there. Registered vets in every abattoir in the United Kingdom are watching the line and checking that the carcases are stamped and marked. They cannot be changed. When one buys what is basically a block of frozen meat from an international buyer, it is easy to pull off the label that says “beef” and slap on one that says something else, or reverse that process. That is a sad state of affairs.
Consumers want to know exactly what they are eating, but today we are in a position where I could set up my own little factory, buy in Brazilian chicken, make chicken pies in my kitchen, and sell them as Nottinghamshire chicken pie. We need to look more closely at the labelling process so that the industry tells consumers exactly what they are buying and where it has come from.
In the end, the consumer has the power and can choose where they source their products. They can choose to go to a supermarket or to a local, small and independent high-street butcher. They can shop around and make those decisions. I acknowledge that that becomes challenging right at the bottom, where people are struggling to make ends meet and to find the cash to buy those products. That is why we need a regulatory system that they can have confidence in, that they can support and that they acknowledge.
My final message is that this weekend, when people are thinking about what they want to have for dinner, they should go to their local butcher, look him in the eye and say, “Where has this animal come from? Tell me about it.” People will then be able to eat that dinner with confidence, knowing that they are buying good-quality, locally produced meat.
May I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate?
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who made some strong points about the traceability of the product in this country. From when animals are in the farmers’ field to the time they are slaughtered and processed, we know exactly where they have come from: the red tractor mark identifies farm assurance, giving us certainty that we are buying the right product and that it is beef.
I wish to say clearly to hon. Members that we have not suddenly got to this situation, as these things have been happening for years. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years, serving on its agriculture committee. Time and again, we said, “We want greater traceability. We want to be able to follow these products across Europe. We want to be confident that it is not just a paper trail and that we actually have physical inspection of this meat and meat product.” None of that has happened. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that it is a wake-up call. We can therefore make sure we put in place a process whereby we identify the product and consumers can be absolutely confident that they are buying beef and not horsemeat.
That leads me on to the fact that what has been happening is fraud—it is criminal activity—as we should be able to buy a beefburger in the shops, even a cheap one, and have confidence in it. We have talked a great deal about educating people on how to cook meat, and that is a great step forward, but we have reached a stage where, rightly or wrongly, many more people eat processed food. We in this Chamber are not going to roll that back, so when a consumer buys a beefburger, even a cheap one, he or she should be confident that it contains beef and not horse.
People no longer want to spend their time cooking the types of meat we have used over the years—the slow-roasting joints and so on—or perhaps they do not have the time available, so much of that meat and meat product can go into cheaper burgers. There is therefore no excuse for what has been happening. I say clearly, making the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood did, that in 1970 we were spending more than 30% of our income on food whereas the figure now is about 12%. Although the percentage of their income that people are spending on food has dropped dramatically, they should still be able confident of what they eat.
We expect the food industry to stand up and be counted, and to be certain that the product it is selling is exactly what it says it is. We have seen supermarkets use a great deal of muscle in the past, and they will do so again, to try to drive prices down. In many ways, one could argue that that is of great benefit to the consumer, but that is only if the consumer gets a product they can trust and be confident in. We must be careful of the day when we go against all processed food, because processed food is not necessarily bad for us. If it is processed in the way it should be and it contains what it says it should on the label, we can eat it with confidence. We can do that if we are eating British food produced under our farm assured system.
I look forward to what the Minister is going to say in reply, because we now need to ensure that we have confidence in our food industry. We need to bring in a food labelling system that will clearly identify the country of origin of the principal meat ingredients in a processed product, so that we know where they come from and so that if we are concerned that they have come from other parts of Europe or across the world where we do not have the same confidence in the food chain, we will not buy that product. At the moment, we have only “processed in the EU” and “processed in the UK”, and we do not know where the principal ingredients came from. I urge Ministers, when they go to Europe, to make sure that we finally get proper labelling, so we can identify where our food came from. We can then act much more quickly to bring criminals to book. That is what they are: criminals who have put the wrong meat in a burger, which may bring problems. I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say.
This has been an important and well-informed debate, and I wish to thank some Members individually for taking part. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), the hon. Members for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) all made excellent speeches.
There can be few subjects more important to us as individuals than what we eat and what we feed to our children and family. I am only sorry that the Secretary of State was too busy to listen to a single speech made after his own.
It is important that I put it on the record that the Secretary of State is having the phone meeting with the Dutch Minister that he mentioned to the House. It is also important that we make those connections.
I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman reappearing in the Chamber, but I am grateful to the Minister of State for that clarification. I know that the Secretary of State has a busy schedule—he told us so. He said that he was meeting again today with the food industry, his second such meeting in four days. I thought that might be the meeting that took him away from the Chamber, and I would have congratulated him, but I realised that today’s meeting was not convened at short notice, or even as a response to the horsemeat scandal; it was convened last October to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to talk about waste and genetically modified food. It is good to see that, at least when it comes to his diary, the right hon. Gentleman has no problem with changing the label.
It is vital that we as consumers have full confidence that what we are eating is exactly what is stated on the packet and that Ministers are fighting our corner, but consumers watching the Secretary of State’s performance today and his statement yesterday will not have been encouraged. Many questions remain unanswered, so I hope that the Minister of State will answer them in his response. Some of them were asked yesterday but were left unanswered or were ignored by the right hon. Gentleman, who felt unable to answer them even today.
The Secretary of State told the House yesterday that he first became aware of the horsemeat problem on 15 January. Early in his statement, he said:
“On 15 January, the FSA was notified by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of the results of its survey of processed beef products”.—[Official Report, 11 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 608.]
Will the Minister of State clarify whether that communication on 15 January was the first time the FSA was aware that such tests were taking place? Was the FSA contacted by the Irish authorities at any time between mid-November and 15 January to alert the FSA to the fact that concerns about the adulteration of beef had sparked an analysis? If so, when was that first contact made? Were Ministers told at the outset? If not, why not?
I did not pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) at the start of my speech because I wanted to make special mention of her terrific speech, which the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North described as an excellent advert for vegetarianism. I tried vegetarianism once, but gave up after about a month because I really cannot stand mushrooms. After the statement yesterday, my hon. Friend asked a sensible question, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North repeated today, about an EU regulation that would limit to 50% the amount of fat and connective tissue that can be used to bulk up mincemeat. She asked about reports that the Government are seeking a derogation from that regulation. The Secretary of State dismissed her in an extremely curt and arrogant manner, which I am sure he, being a gentleman, now regrets. Will the Minister of State now answer that question? Are the Government seeking to exempt the UK from a measure that is aimed specifically at protecting the rights of consumers?
I know the Minister of State, who will respond to the debate, takes a keen interest in the Food Standards Agency. I know that because he told the “Food Programme” on Sunday not once, but twice, “I can only go on the information given to me by the Food Standards Agency.” Fine. Good. So will he now accept the advice of the chief executive of the FSA, who has said that retailers
“need to test significantly across the product range, across wider meat-based product ranges”?
She was talking about chicken and pork products. Will the Minister, who prides himself on listening to the advice of the FSA, heed her advice? Do the Government have a view on this at all? [Interruption.] The Minister will get his chance to respond. He does love to chunter from a sedentary position. I spent two years on the Science and Technology Committee with the hon. Gentleman, and he was a veritable ray of sunshine during those many overseas visits. He was great company and I have to say that he seems to have gone into an awful bad mood since he went on to the Government Front Bench. I am sure that after the next election—
I am getting back in the saddle right now, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The Minister of State warned Members a few weeks ago that we should not talk down the British food industry, and he is right, but given the huge number of jobs that the industry supports and its importance to our economy does he recognise that the industry can be undermined by other factors? Does he accept that ministerial inaction and indecisiveness can be far more damaging to the industry?
In mid-November Irish authorities were concerned enough about contamination of meat products—sorry, adulteration of meat products—some of which were headed to the United Kingdom, that they initiated tests without, according to UK Ministers, informing the UK Government of their initial concerns. Four weeks ago Irish authorities alerted the UK Government that they had discovered horsemeat in burgers stocked in a number of UK supermarkets. Last Monday it was revealed that pies and pasties labelled as halal and served in UK prisons had tested positive for pig DNA. Last Thursday, reports emerged that the scandal had spread from frozen burgers to frozen ready meals.
Cue a sudden blur of belated action from the Secretary of State. On Saturday, he finally got round to meeting the British food industry to discuss the growing crisis. His food Minister had a least got round to meeting the industry before, once, one week previously. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said yesterday, “Crisis, what crisis?” At last, yesterday, the Secretary of State deigned to come to the House to berate Opposition Members for having the audacity to question him about this mess. As with the ash dieback issue, he has taken a very laid-back and relaxed approach to the issue—an attitude that, I have to tell him, is not shared by British consumers and their families.
When sales fall, when confidence in our food industry plummets, no doubt Ministers will reach for the nearest microphone to decry “scare mongering” by Opposition politicians. Who knows? Perhaps an unfortunate young relation of the Secretary of State will be encouraged to eat a Findus lasagne live on telly! But it will not be those on the Opposition Benches who are responsible for the collapse in trust. Consumers, yes, and voters well know where the blame lies.
A number of Members have highlighted the lack of an active criminal investigation. When pressed on this yesterday by my colleague, the shadow Secretary of State, the Secretary of State said that
“she went on and on about the police”.—[Official Report, 11 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 613.]
Really? Does the Secretary of State really think that such a patronising and condescending manner is the way to win support in the House on such an issue? May I suggest to the Secretary of State and to his deputy that a bit of humility would not go amiss? I say this as a non-practitioner myself, but I hear it works wonders. Even if ministerial action had so far been above criticism, such a manner would be inappropriate, and Ministers’ actions so far have been far from being above criticism.
The shadow Secretary of State was right to go on about the police. The Secretary of State himself has repeatedly stated that the adulteration is a result of “an international criminal conspiracy” and “a straight fraud”. In line with this, the Irish Government confirmed on Monday 4 February that the Garda and fraud specialists had been called in to investigate.
The shadow Secretary of State passed the details of more British companies alleged to be involved in the scandal to the Serious Organised Crime Agency last Friday and to the FSA on Saturday. On the same Friday, the FSA revealed that the police were involved, but that no live criminal investigation was active. Yesterday, the Secretary of State said that until there was criminal action in this country, the police could not take action. Is that really the case? Will he confirm that he thinks criminals are present everywhere in Europe except the United Kingdom?
I delayed reference to the first-class and powerful speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I want to echo some of her comments. I hope we will not use this debate and crisis as an excuse to tax supermarkets, which, despite their drawbacks, have made affordable, quality food available to ordinary families throughout the country. However, with massive retail power comes huge responsibility—to make sure that the items sold are precisely as described as on the labels. I was glad to hear the Secretary of State echo that sentiment.
We all see the value of sourcing products locally. Many Members have understandably used this debate to promote local produce, but that is far too complacent—ignoring the realities of economic and time pressures on modern families, simply to advise consumers to buy the ingredients of lasagne in their corner shops rather than a ready meal at Asda or Tesco. It is also too easy for the Secretary of State to dismiss his responsibilities by saying repeatedly that retailers have ultimate responsibility for the content of food. Unless he wants the “F” removed from DEFRA, it is incumbent on him to carry out the responsibilities he already has.
I know that the Secretary of State believes in a laissez-faire form of government—he thinks that the Government should not get involved in the running of people’s lives. He seems to have taken that a step further, seeming to believe that the Government should not get involved in the running of the Government. The FSA is independent, but that does not prevent the Secretary of State’s from asking it what kind of testing it plans to carry out.
I shall wind up now, Mr Deputy Speaker. There are two types of Government: the one whose Ministers are so confident, competent and on top of their briefs that from the Opposition Benches government looks easy. Then there is the other type—the Government whose members never seem well briefed or surefooted, but always seem to be behind the curve, making the wrong decisions too late. Such a Government leave the Opposition with the distinct impression that almost anyone else could do a better job. There is no doubt about which category this Government fall into.
In the few moments I have to respond, I should say that this has been a broadly measured and constructive debate, as is entirely appropriate on such a serious issue. It has occasionally been slightly marred by Opposition Front Benchers who wished to introduce a party political element and seemed blithely oblivious to the fact that the systems in place are now precisely the same as those under the previous Government.
My view is that this is a shared problem and shared response. The problem is shared between the Government, the House, the food companies and the regulators. It is now shared among countries across Europe that are either implicated or the victims of what may or may not be criminal behaviour. It is shared by the police and investigating authorities, which are now looking into what would appear to be—I make that qualification—significant and widespread criminality. I hope that we also share the conviction that there is only one group whose interests are paramount: the consumer, who has been cheated in having taken off the shelf something that was not what was described on the label.
Despite the occasional rhetorical swoops, there was sufficient common cause across the House. I have looked carefully at the Opposition motion, most of which is a recital of fact and therefore unexceptional. However, one part of it is wrong and suggests the Opposition’s current frame of mind. They call on the
“Government to ensure that police and fraud specialists investigate the criminal networks involved”.
It is not for the Government in this country to instruct the police on what they should investigate. It is certainly not for the Government in this country to place requirements on police authorities in other member states as to what they should investigate. On that basis, I invite my colleagues not to support the motion, but I will nevertheless acknowledge the extent to which we agree.
Let me deal with some of the individual contributions. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who I understand has had to go to a—
No, because the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) took up all my time.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton raised a very important issue that was mentioned by many others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish): the importance of the traceability of meat in this country and the systems we have in place. It is incredibly important to emphasise that so far not the slightest suspicion has been raised that cut meat produced in this country is anything other than of very high quality indeed, and we should take some comfort from that.
The hon. Lady also mentioned trace contamination. We need to look at whether DNA contamination of less than 1% is anything other than environmental contamination that is below a certain threshold. We are taking advice on that, because it is very important that we do not suggest that something is adulterated when, for instance, it has merely been sitting on a butcher’s shelf next to the meat of another species. We have to be careful about that.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) raised some important points. I will look very carefully at what he said to see whether there is substance there that we need to pursue. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire talked about fraud on a European scale and the importance of the police investigation. I absolutely agree.
The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) talked about the importance of the consumer, which I mentioned right at the beginning. She then drew some questionable conclusions in terms of public health, but I know that she did so because she wants for her constituents the same assurance that I want for mine. I want my constituents and her constituents to be absolutely assured that food on our supermarket shelves is safe to eat. Safety is the first priority, and then we need composition tests to make sure that it is what it says it is. The tests that we have carried out so far have not given any cause for concern on safety grounds, and she needs to take that back to her constituency.
The hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) took a global view of food prices and raised very important points. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) gave a graphic description of some of the processes that are used in the processed meat industry. May I distinguish between what she said and what the hon. Member for Glasgow South said later about mince? Having a higher fat content in mince—British mince has always had it—does not mean that we should describe it as something else. I am sorry, but I do not think it is helpful to the consumer to say, “This is no longer mince—it is mince with fat and collagen added,” or something of that kind. That is the point of the consultation on composition that we are carrying out.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) spoke with great knowledge about horse passports and the national equine database. She said, as I have said repeatedly, that the national equine database did nothing whatsoever in terms of traceability. If we want to improve the passport system—I think there is a strong case for doing so—we need to look at it not on that basis but on the basis of how passports are issued and their content.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South talked about an issue of timing to do with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and said that the Food Standards Agency had failed to react. He suggested that the Food Standards Authority of Ireland acted on the basis of intelligence. Let me tell him that it explicitly rejects the suggestion that it was working on the basis of an intelligence-based system, and therefore it was not operating on the basis of suspicion that there was adulteration of material going into the UK. As soon as it had confirmed results, it shared them with the FSA and the FSA shared them with the Government, and we have then had the process that is continuing. We like to work on the basis of evidence before bringing prosecutions, and we like to give the evidence to the police. [Interruption.] I am answering the question; indeed, that is the answer. They did not suspect that adulterated meat was going into the UK; they did a routine test and notified us when they had adverse results.
This House needs to send a message to food businesses that their credibility and reputation are on the line. They need to take the actions that we have agreed with them and, on the issue of convoluted and labyrinthine food supply networks, they ought to consider whether provenance is not a more important issue than profits. I think that they may need to learn that lesson.
The message to regulators is that we need to ensure that systems in place across Europe work effectively. We need to look at our own systems to see whether they can work better, including the horse passport system, and we need to consider whether the intelligence-based approach needs to be supplemented by regular audit.
The message to consumers is that they have a right to be sold what it says on the label and a right to products on the supermarket shelf that are, whatever the selling price, safe, wholesome and genuine. The regulatory authorities, the Government and everybody else involved with this—principally the retailers—have to provide the evidence for that and reassure our consumers.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Government lost in the High Court this morning. The High Court ruled that the Government’s Jobseeker’s Allowance (Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme) Regulations 2011 are unlawful. The regulations forced people into unpaid work—workfare—and, if they refused that work as unsuitable in assisting them in gaining employment, they lost their benefits. This morning the regulations were declared unlawful. At midday, the Government put out a written statement:
“we intend to lay new regulations which will come into force immediately and enable us to continue to refer Jobseekers Allowance claimants to our employment schemes”—
that is, back on to workfare. Those regulations have not been published yet. I am told that they may be subject to the negative procedure and so will come into immediate force without a vote in the House and with no opportunity to debate them. Could we ask the Government to make a statement to clarify the current position? A large number of people will, as a result of the regulations being ruled unlawful, be able to claim back the benefits they lost as a result of the unlawful penalties that were levelled against them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advance notice of that point of order. Those on the Treasury Bench will have heard his desire for a statement to be made on this matter. He has been in touch with the Journal Office and it seems that no regulations have yet been laid. I suggest that he keeps in close touch with the Table Office, which will be able to advise him on how best to pursue this matter.