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Volume 558: debated on Thursday 14 February 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on horsemeat in the UK food chain and joint police and Food Standards Agency action.

The Secretary of State and I are providing the House with very regular reports on the adulteration of processed beef products with horsemeat. As the House will appreciate, it is not possible to give a running commentary on active investigations. Therefore, for operational reasons, we were unable to inform the House of the Food Standards Agency’s plan to enter the two meat premises in west Wales and west Yorkshire earlier this week. As part of its audit of all horse abattoirs in the UK and the ongoing investigation into the adulteration of meat products, the FSA gathered intelligence that led to it and the police entering the two meat premises and seizing horsemeat. The FSA also seized all paperwork from the two companies and is investigating customer lists. The FSA suspended activities at both plants immediately. The FSA will continue to work closely with the police, and if there is evidence of criminal activity, I will expect the full force of the law to be brought down on anyone involved.

I met retailers and suppliers again yesterday, and they confirmed that they are on course to provide meaningful results from product testing by tomorrow. The Secretary of State has made a written ministerial statement today on the outcome of his successful discussions in Europe yesterday. The co-ordinated control plan proposed by the Commission is a welcome step to help address a pan-European problem.

The FSA’s most recent tests for the presence of bute in horses slaughtered in the UK checked 206 horse carcases, and eight came back positive. Three may have entered the food chain in France, and the remaining five have not gone into the food chain. The FSA is working with the French authorities in an attempt to recall the meat from the food chain. I understand—I am sure that the House will be glad to hear this—that the results of bute testing in the withdrawn Findus products have come back negative. The chief medical officer and the chief executive officer of the FSA will be making a statement on both these matters later this morning.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that statement. I am sure the whole House will welcome Tuesday’s raids by the FSA and the police. May I ask him whether all customers of the meat-processing plant have been contacted about the raid and alerted to a potential risk?

I am glad that the FSA is investigating the concerns about horsemeat entering the food chain that I first raised with Ministers last month. Action must be taken to deal with any criminals whose activities have so badly damaged consumer confidence in the UK food industry. I raised the problem of bute-contaminated horsemeat being released into the human food chain with the Minister at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions last month. What action did he take with the FSA to reassure himself after I raised those concerns? Was he aware of bute contamination before that day? Will he explain why, up until four days ago, all horses were being tested for bute in this country but were still being released for human consumption? I am astonished to hear that a further three could have entered the food chain in France, given that I raised this issue with him last month. That is astonishing. We were in the middle of a horsemeat adulteration scandal; this is just catastrophic complacency from him.

It is totally unacceptable that all UK horses were being tested for bute at slaughter but still being released into the human food chain until four days ago. We know that, with more than 9,000 horses slaughtered in the UK for human consumption abroad last year, we must make sure that horsemeat intended for humans is not contaminated with bute—it really is as simple as that. So why did the Minister not act immediately when I raised this issue three weeks ago in this House? Why did he not order full testing, and order that horses should be released only when clear from bute, the moment I raised this with him? We need to know whether the horsemeat entering the UK in these adulterated products contained bute.

Will the Minister tell the House whether the FSA has conducted its own tests on the Findus products to ensure that action can be taken through the criminal courts? Which other countries are testing their horsemeat lasagnes? Which other countries have received those horsemeat lasagnes? We hear from the media that they went to 16 countries, so why have they been withdrawn in only six countries—Britain, Ireland, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway? What has happened to the products in the other countries? Has the Minister sought or received reassurances from his EU counterparts that the products have been withdrawn in all EU countries?

Yesterday, the Secretary of State travelled to Brussels for a meeting with his EU counterparts. That arch-Eurosceptic had a damascene conversion to EU labelling regulations on the way. He wants more of them, he wants them quickly and he wants the Commission to hurry up with them—so much speed when his Government have spent the past two years blocking Labour MEPs’ attempts to get better country of origin labelling for processed meats and ready meals. [Interruption.] They do not like hearing it, but they are all keen on it now, Mr Speaker.

We are all very happy to hear that, but unfortunately the hon. Lady has already exceeded her time. I think a last sentence will suffice.

Is there not a danger with the EU testing that the most high-risk products will be withdrawn over the next three weeks and quietly disposed of? Yesterday, the Secretary of State said:

“Nobody had a clue that there was adulteration of beef products”,

yet the Government were told by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that it was testing last November. It seems that he and his colleagues are just totally clueless.

Listening to the hon. Lady, one would fail to understand that probably the biggest investigation into criminal behaviour that has ever been conducted across Europe is going on at the instigation of this Government and as a result of the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He instigated the meeting of Farming Ministers of the affected countries and the Commission, established Europol in a co-ordinating role, brought forward the labelling of ingredients for products as an emergency item within the EU, exchanged data at a speed that was never done under the Government whom the hon. Lady supported, brought forward an emergency meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health to consider probable thresholds, and got the matter on the agenda for Council on 25 February. That is a quite remarkable achievement in a very short time. The Government are committed to proper investigations based on evidence.

Let me finish with one point raised by the hon. Lady—[Interruption.] If she would stop shouting at me, I will give her the answer. She raised the criminal investigations following her assertions in this House about phenylbutazone. She was repeatedly asked by the Food Standards Agency to share the information she purported to have and she refused to do so. I think that every citizen in this country has a duty to provide evidence to the relevant investigating authorities when there is evidence of potential criminal behaviour.

Order. We cannot have a point of order in the middle of the exchange. The hon. Lady can make a point of order later and I will of course hear it at the appropriate time.

Is not the hon. Lady’s difficulty the fact that in 2006, under the previous Labour Government, changes were made that led to there being no daily inspection presence in meat-cutting premises? As the House and the country listen to the hon. Lady, will they not become increasingly convinced that all this sound and fury is about drumming up shock-horror headlines rather than responsibly contributing to solving the problem?

There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman says. When I hear those on the Opposition Front Bench giving a critical analysis of the very arrangements they put in place as though they had been invented over the past few months, I find it difficult to take some of their criticisms seriously.

My concern is that this scandal is the tip of the iceberg and there is much more to be uncovered about what goes into our food and what is in the meat supply chain. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will learn the lessons from this episode and mount a wider investigation into those issues?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We need to get to the bottom of some of the supply chain issues across Europe. First, we need to deal effectively with the immediate problem, but then we need to stand back and take a long, hard look at some of the other practices. The retailers and processors in this country and across Europe also need to consider how they operate, because I am not convinced that they are as convinced as they ought to be of the provenance of some of their goods.

Will my hon. Friend consider the July 2012 veterinary residues committee declaration that the horse passport of any horse treated with phenylbutazone should declare—and should be appropriately signed—that that horse should not enter the food chain? Is it the case, as at that time, that some vets are still prescribing bute without checking the passport or ensuring that the horse is subsequently signed out of the food chain?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. It is absolutely clear that the horse passport should show that a horse has been treated, and that horse is then not put into the food chain if it is inappropriate to do so. As I have looked at the situation, I have become more and more convinced that the horse passport system, which was introduced by the EU and implemented in this country by the previous Government, is not as effective as it should be, by a long way. Once we have dealt with the initial problem, we ought to look at the system again. I want to see an effective record of provenance for horsemeat, just as for any other animal. We have a very good system for cattle and sheep, but for horses the system is inadequate.

The whole House should take seriously the risk of phenylbutazone getting into the food chain. We should therefore be pleased to hear that the test results on one batch have come back negative, but of course there is an awful lot more horsemeat in circulation, some sourced in the UK and some sourced elsewhere. My concern, which I put directly to the Minister, stems from the very good report published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee today. Where is the testing facility going to be? Is it adequate? Will the Minister give the House an assurance that there will be adequate investment in testing in this country?

In this country, I think we now have the situation under control, but I am concerned that there are third-country imports of horsemeat into the European Union. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has secured an agreement across Europe that there will be bute testing in other countries for horsemeat coming in. It is important to note the chief medical officer’s advice—and the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Science and Technology Committee, will be aware of the importance of this. It is clear that at low levels—and we are talking about low levels in horsemeat—there is a very low risk indeed that bute would cause any harm to health. Nevertheless, we need to eliminate it.

Order. There is much interest but very little time, and so far exchanges have been too long. What we require is a model of brevity, to be exemplified by Mr Nicholas Soames.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has put together one of the biggest operations of its type ever in the European Union to secure a result across the whole of the European Union? Will he acknowledge that the use of bute is grossly exaggerated? It is used, but nothing like as much as is claimed.

I do not resile from the fact that phenylbutazone should not be present in horsemeat that is presented for human consumption; let us be absolutely clear. However, my right hon. Friend is right to say that the actions that have now been put in place—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is at this moment at Europol and Eurojust in The Hague, securing police and justice co-ordination on this matter—are unprecedented. It is extremely welcome that European authorities are now getting to grips with the problem.

It is interesting that the Minister’s attitude has changed since the statement on Monday, when he was at pains to say that there was no risk to public health and that this was an issue of mislabelling and fraud. Clearly, when bute enters the food chain, it is a public health issue, and given that a very small percentage—1%—of carcases were tested, should not the Minister make an apology to the House?

What I said, and have repeatedly said, is that there is no evidence of material that is harmful to human health having been put on sale in this country. That is still the case, and I am very glad that that is the case. We are testing for bute. That is the prime responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. It worries me sometimes that people seem to think that food safety is a secondary issue. It is not. It is the prime responsibility.

Can my hon. Friend confirm whether the FSA has been able to contact all the businesses and retailers on the customer lists of the two raided properties, one of which is in my constituency?

The FSA is examining the paperwork from those companies at the moment. I understand that some of it is a little difficult to interpret. I cannot give my hon. Friend a categorical assurance, because some of the meat present appears to have been unlabelled and therefore its destination is unknown. The FSA and the police are certainly taking every action they can, but at the moment they are examining the paperwork.

Does the Minister share my astonishment that Tim Smith, who was chief executive of the FSA until only last year and who is now the technical director in charge of food standards at Tesco, is not only still in his job, but still on the FSA board? Some would say that is not just switching horses, but trying to ride both at the same time.

I have to say that I am impressed by the degree of co-operation we are now seeing from the industry and all food businesses in the testing regime we have put in place, from which we hope to have meaningful results tomorrow. Who works for which company is not a matter for the Government or Ministers at the Dispatch Box, but whether we get results that reassure the public is a matter for us.

Given the importance of this issue to all our constituents, will the Minister join me in calling on Her Majesty’s Opposition to work with the Government in the national interest to sort it out, rather than making cheap party political points?

The beef, lamb and pork sourced in the United Kingdom follows a strict traceability system. Farmers in the United Kingdom have experienced a marked decrease in their incomes over the past 12 months. Can the Minister confirm that costs accrued as a result of the horsemeat scandal will not be passed on to farmers or farming organisations?

I hope that no costs will be directly apportioned to farmers, but the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about the assurance schemes we have in this country, and not only those relating to the traceability of our meat, but the various assurances placed on top of that through schemes. I think that we have every reason to be proud of the quality of meat in this country, particularly cut meat, some of which is the best in the world. Of course, farmers in his part of the country play a leading role in providing that quality meat.

In 2006 the Food Fraud Task Force identified the potential problem of food fraud and made 32 recommendations for dealing with it. Can the Minister explain to the House what action the previous Government took to implement any of those recommendations?

I think that I am forbidden to give an opinion on the previous Government’s performance in response, but my hon. Friend will draw his own conclusions from the actions, or lack thereof, that took place at the time.

In answering the question from the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Minister said that there was a problem with horse passports and sought to blame the previous Labour Government for it. Does he remember what he told the House on 17 January? He said:

“The hon. Lady seems to think that there is some difficulty with horse passports. I simply do not think that that is the case. I would happily set out the difference between the route for horses going to slaughter and the routes for others.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 1027.]

Is not that symptomatic of his rather high-handed attitude, which has really irritated people, and does not it explain the Government’s flat-footedness at the beginning of the crisis?

I humbly apologise if the hon. Gentleman is irritated, but I must say that we are continuing to do the work that is required—[Interruption.]

There has been an attempt to bring the national equine database into this matter as though it were a panacea. That is not the case, and I have been consistent in saying so. Those who feel that a national equine database would have improved the situation are sadly mistaken. We need to look at the issue of horse passports, but we do not need to return to an issue that is frankly irrelevant to the situation in hand.

Phenylbutazone, known as bute, can be bought off the internet in tablet form, in injectable form, and as an apple and citrus-flavoured powder. Most horse owners believe that it is the only effective anti-inflammatory drug in controlling joint pain. It is so easy for owners to get hold of it that I wonder what the Minister might have in the way of proposals to ensure that there is some integrity to the system. Does he agree that testing is the only way of identifying the use of this drug?

I do not want to move away from the position that it is crucial to understand: it is the responsibility of those who are selling products and those who are processing products to obey the law, which is very clear that a horse that has had phenylbutazone administered to it should not be entering the food chain. We have a regulatory issue as to whether the horse passport system across Europe is sufficient to meet that task, and that is what we are addressing. It would not be helpful to people who own horses across Europe to say that they cannot use a very useful anti-inflammatory drug; rather, we need to say, “If you do that, don’t put it on people’s plates.”

Following the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), will the Minister now confirm what action he had taken to deal with bute before she raised concerns with him on the Floor of the House on 24 January?

I have already explained that phenylbutazone is a well-known issue and that it is one of the things that is looked for at the point of slaughter, particularly through the horse passport system. I have also said that there may be deficiencies in the horse passport system that we need to address—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is shouting at me from a sedentary position. I do not think that is helpful to a serious discussion of the subject. [Interruption.]

I call Neil Carmichael. The hon. Gentleman should not look so surprised; he was standing up, and we wish to hear him.

With all the cheering, Mr Speaker, I could not quite hear you.

Does the Minister agree that this is really all about the exposure of a very significant deception whereby the rule of law has been broken? Does he also agree that it is important that he has discussions with his European colleagues about bringing in mechanisms to stop it happening again, especially through making sure that the supply chain is properly transparent?

The hon. Gentleman summates the whole position very well. The most important thing is to have effective investigation, to find the evidence, and on the basis of that evidence, to take action, and that is what we are doing.

May I ask the Minister for a simple answer to a simple question: when did he order that horse carcases should be released from abattoirs after they had been found to be clean of bute? [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) says helpfully, “It’s in the folder.” [Interruption.] We have had rather a lot of dates in our heads in this unfolding situation, and I make no apologies for not being able to give—[Interruption.] I cannot find the date in here. I am not going to give the hon. Lady a wrong answer; I will find it and tell her later.

Looking to the future, we really have to put the consumer at the heart of food safety and food health. When we bring forward the review of EU labelling, can we ensure that my constituents are able to understand what is in their food and do not need a degree in food science to know what they are eating?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point—that food labelling is supposed to help, not confuse the consumer. That is why we are trying to make sure that the food labelling system is not only accurate—that goes without saying—but that it gives people information that is useful, not confusing. There will be talk about excluding information that, frankly, simply confuses the consumer. We have a consultation at the moment about the labelling of mince. I do not think it is helpful to call mince sold in this country as it always has been anything other than mince. I think that that is helpful to the consumer, not unhelpful.

Although the whole House will welcome the Minister’s belated recognition of the importance of horse passports, may I suggest that he talks to the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government, who have been looking at this issue for some time and who recognise the importance of accurate passporting to control the movement of horses across Wales?

We regularly speak to our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. Indeed, I spoke only yesterday to my ministerial counterpart in Wales. We regularly exchange information on these matters and come to common views wherever possible.

Food safety and quality is an international matter and we need collaboration across borders. When criminal activity is involved, Europol has a particularly important role to play. Will the Minister ensure that we identify where this horsemeat came from in order to verify, for instance, that it was not slaughtered on unlicensed premises?

That is why we need a European-wide criminal investigation and why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is at The Hague today talking to Europol. Europol can act only if requested to do so by member states, and the UK has made such a request, in company with Mr Le Foll, the French Minister. That is why it is proceeding and I think that that will add a lot of co-ordination to what otherwise might be a fragmented police investigation.

It is reported in today’s press that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland told the FSA about its concerns in November 2012. I ask the Minister again: when were Ministers first told about this problem? Perhaps the answer is in his folder, if he would care to look at it.

We have said all along that there is co-ordination between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the FSA. We have also said—the hon. Lady can look back at the record of it—that the Irish were not acting on the basis of an intelligence-led operation, so there was no prior information. They did spot checks and told us that they were going to do so. As soon as they had confirmed results, they told the FSA and the FSA told Ministers. That is all a matter of record.

Confidence in the food supply chain is key and it is retailers who bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of the food they sell. What assurances has my hon. Friend sought from retailers about the integrity of the supply chain networks?

That is very much the basis of our discussions with them over the past couple of weeks. Indeed, such discussions took place yesterday and earlier in the week. We are absolutely clear that retailers bear the legal responsibility. When I say retailers, that should be extended to all food businesses, such as caterers. They must be confident in the integrity of their supply chains. We will do everything we can to provide regulatory support for that, so that cases in which they are defrauded are brought to light. The crux is that they must have both assured provenance and a testing regime in their own companies so that they can, with confidence, tell consumers that the meat on their shelves is both what they say it is and safe.

The Minister mentioned the work that is being done at a European level, especially through Europol. Does he agree, therefore, that it is deeply ironic—in fact, it is profoundly worrying—that at this very time the Government are considering a mass opt-out from European justice and home affairs provisions, including the work of Europol?

I can only say that at the moment we have the services of Europol. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is using those services very effectively. He is leading that request today and we will make sure that on a pan-European basis we deal with what is a pan-European issue.

May I reply to the question asked by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)? She asked for a date, but I did not want to give her the wrong one, because my memory may be fallible. It was Monday 11 February.

What my constituents want to know is simply whether it is safe to eat processed beef products that are currently on sale. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) has spread huge fear by saying that she would not eat products that are currently on sale. What is the advice of the chief medical officer and the independent Food Standards Agency on this matter?

The advice is very clear. All the testing that has taken place has failed to find evidence of food that is a danger to human health. Therefore, the clear advice is that there is no reason to change shopping habits on the basis of concerns about health. I prefer people to take their own decisions on these matters on the basis of evidence and information. That is an individual decision and it is not helpful for people to pretend that there is a massive food health scare if there is not, and nor is it helpful for people to give reassurances that are not supported by evidence.

I am amazed that the Minister could not remember what happened on Monday, given that it was only three days ago. In the last year, a large number of horses have been slaughtered in UK abattoirs for meat. What estimate has his Department made of the occurrence of bute in those horses?

That is precisely what the FSA is testing and producing results on. As I have said, the chief medical officer will be giving a statement about that later this morning.

The hon. Gentleman says that he is amazed that I cannot remember what happened on Monday. I can remember what happened on Monday, but I am not going to stand at the Dispatch Box and give a date if I might find that I have mistakenly misled the House. I would prefer to give correct information to the House than wrong information. I am sorry if that offends Members.

Order. I am keen to accommodate the remaining colleagues because there are not many of them, but I trust that they will be brief. The master class is to be provided by Mr Philip Hollobone.

My constituents in Kettering will be surprised at the extent to which meat products are cut, processed and reprocessed back and forth across so many international borders. Might one of the benefits of this episode be that consumers value local farmers markets that provide high-quality meats sourced from local farmers?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I hope that people value locally sourced produce, and there is evidence that they do so. People value local butchers shops that know the provenance of the produce. They also value the quality assurance schemes that we have in this country, which indicate a high quality of produce.

Families in Basildon and Thurrock have been defrauded in the food that they have bought. Does the Minister share my anger that the retailers have allowed that to happen?

We should all be outraged that people have been given meat that is not as described on the packet. The Government stand four-square with the consumer who goes into the shop and buys the product, and say, “This will not do.” It is unacceptable and those who have allowed it to happen, whether through insufficient checking or criminal activity, must be brought to book.

People across west Yorkshire will be outraged that horsemeat has entered the food chain labelled as beef. Will the Minister reassure consumers that the individuals who are carrying out this criminal activity will be prosecuted?

Ministers cannot give assurances on what the police and investigatory authorities will do. It is certainly my wish that wherever there is evidence of criminal activity, it is put before the courts and the people responsible are prosecuted and face the full force of the law.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for the Labour party to criticise the testing regime that we inherited from it is pure, naked opportunism?

Many British farmers are concerned by those who are touring the TV studios at the moment saying that they would not eat any beef products in this country. What does the Minister think retailers, who have ultimate responsibility for ensuring food safety, should be doing to reassure their consumers?

In the first instance, what they should be doing is exactly what they are doing at our request: testing every processed beef product that they have on their shelves and sharing with us the results so that we can provide advice independently, through the FSA, on the level of substitution that has occurred. However, they have to go further than that and examine their supply chains. They have to be able to reassure their customers of the value of the systems that they have in place, and I hope that having taken the initial action, they will soon be in a position to do exactly that and to tell every person who walks through the doors of their stores where a product comes from and that it has been tested and is what it says it is.

The fact is that we have the most fantastic food and agriculture industry in this country, and confidence is key to it. Does the Minister agree that the headline-grabbing hysteria of Opposition Front Benchers does nothing to help the confidence that this great British industry requires?

I am not going to criticise anyone for expressing proper concerns on behalf of their constituents, but I will criticise those who peddle part-truths or untruths, which is profoundly unhelpful. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) expresses surprise, but the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) had to come back and apologise only this week for saying something grossly wrong about the number of horses unaccounted for in Ulster.

Will the Minister clarify that it was the changes put in place in 2006 that took away the daily inspection presence in meat-cutting premises?

This is one of the problems—apparently the world only started in 2010 and all the things that were done before then did not count, and apparently the system that was in place in 2010 was so perfect that it has only been downhill since. That is not a credible position, and those who purport to speak for the people of this country should come up with a credible position.