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Horsemeat Fraud (Update)

Volume 559: debated on Monday 25 February 2013

I would like to update the House on developments since my written ministerial statement on 14 February 2013, Official Report, column 60WS.

Consumers have been the Government’s priority throughout this incident. No misrepresentation of horse meat as beef is acceptable. Food industry tests of the most vulnerable processed beef products have now been reported to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) covering approximately 90% of retailers’ products, and 80% of those from manufacturers, caterers and wholesalers. It is of some reassurance to consumers that over 99% of 3,599 tests contained no horse DNA at or above the level of 1 %.

On Friday 15 February, the FSA published the first set of results from the programme of product testing being carried out by food businesses across the supply chain. Out of 2,501 tests, 99% were completely clear of horse DNA. The 29 samples that were positive for horse DNA involved products which the FSA had already been informed about and which had already been taken off the shelves and the recall publicised.

I followed the publication of this first tranche of results with a meeting on 18 February with businesses and organisations from throughout the UK food industry. Ministers from the devolved Administrations were also present. This was a constructive meeting, at which everyone committed to work together to rebuild the certainty and trust that consumers deserve, both for the products that they buy and the food that they are served. At that meeting food businesses throughout the supply chain agreed to do their best to report back as many testing results as possible to the FSA by Friday 22 February.

On Friday 22 February, the FSA published the second set of test results from the programme of product testing being carried out by food businesses. A further 1,133 new results were reported, of which six products tested positive for the presence of horse DNA. The message to consumers remains that the overwhelming majority of products tested, 3,599 out of 3,631 (over 99%) were completely clear of horse DNA. A further update of industry testing results will be published by the FSA this Friday.

There have been no positive tests to date for the presence of bute in any of the UK food samples found to contain horse. Food adulterated with horsemeat remains a fraud issue and one of consumer confidence, not one of food safety.

On Friday 22 February the British Retail Consortium issued a press release stating that they had completed over 90% of their tests on processed meat products. Caterers and wholesalers also indicated that they had now completed around 80% of their tests.

The FSA will publish the results of the remaining tests on Friday 1 March. After that, food businesses will update the FSA on their test results every three months. I have also agreed with food businesses that we should meet regularly to discuss ways to strengthen the food industry.

Public sector food is very much within scope of the current testing regime. The major suppliers and caterers to public institutions are part of the extensive food industry testing which is being reported and published through the FSA. In addition the food served in schools, hospitals and prisons is included in the FSA commissioned UK-wide authenticity survey of processed beef products and ready meals being carried out by local authorities. As with all parts of the industry any positive test results will lead to the immediate withdrawal of products, notification to the FSA and information being provided immediately to consumers.

The FSA has made it clear that all public bodies where food is served are expected to have rigorous procurement procedures in place, and use reputable suppliers. The FSA has reminded public bodies of their responsibility for their own food contracts. Since the FSA issued advice to public institutions on Sunday 11 February lead Government Departments have been in contact with their public bodies to highlight the advice. All public bodies are aware of the extensive testing regime the FSA has established with the food industry and the UK-wide survey which have been put in place to reinforce the integrity and confidence in processed beef supplies in Britain.

At the meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on 15 February agreement was reached on a Europe-wide programme of testing of beef products for presence of horse DNA and testing of horsemeat intended for the food chain for “bute”. This is an important step in establishing where the problem of food fraud is occurring across Europe and seeking the commitment from all member states to not only put an end to it but to prevent it happening again. The apparent French source of the recalled Findus product and the announcements last week by Nestle and Birdseye of product withdrawals in Italy, Spain and Belgium demonstrate that this is a Europe-wide issue.

Results from the first phase of the UK-wide authenticity survey being carried out by local authorities of minced beef products for the presence of horse and pig DNA will be available in the week beginning 4 March. In the meantime the survey has been extended. A second phase will survey a wider range of beef products including ready meals. Sampling for this phase has been completed and testing is starting this week. A third phase to include sampling under the EU co-ordinated control plan is also now under way. The FSA will report the UK’s contribution to the Europe-wide programme to the EU by mid-April.

While the issues surrounding falsified horse passports are unrelated to the fact that horsemeat has been fraudulently passed off as beef in a number of products I would like to update the House on this issue. I met representatives from across the equine sector on 21 February to look at ways in which we can work together to tighten and improve the current horse passport system. DEFRA officials will continue to work with interested parties but in the meantime the FSA has already taken robust action to ensure that no horse carcass from the UK can now enter the human food chain unless it has tested negative for bute.

Consumers need to be confident in the food that they buy. I welcome the significant effort put into testing products by businesses across the food industry to tackle horsemeat fraud. This unprecedented level of testing, combined with the FSA led local authority and EU programmes over the coming weeks, will give us a clear picture of the extent of the problem. Investigations into specific incidents are ongoing in the UK and across Europe and where appropriate the police and other enforcement authorities are involved.

This has been a Europe-wide scandal. I will be discussing the mislabelling of beef products with other Ministers at the EU Agriculture Council meeting today, and will report further to the House after the meeting.