I represented the UK at the first day of the 25 and 26 February Agriculture and Fisheries Council. Ministers from the devolved Administrations were also present. I also had an individual discussion with Commissioner Borg. I would like to update the House on the Council discussion on horsemeat fraud in advance of the normal report on the rest of the Council business.
The Council had a wide-ranging discussion, following an update from the Irish presidency which summarised action to date, including the informal meeting of some agriculture Ministers which I attended on 13 February and the new EU-wide programme of testing of beef products for horse DNA and testing of horsemeat for phenylbutazone agreed on 15 February.
Member states endorsed EU-wide action to address the issue through the testing programme and rapid sharing of information on wrongdoing. There was also widespread recognition that this incident arose as a result of fraudulent practices outside existing EU legislation. The Commissioner reminded member states that they have responsibility for official controls in the food chain and food businesses have primary responsibility for compliance.
I outlined the urgent action the UK Government have taken to investigate the situation in the UK and noted that arrests have been made and investigations continue. I noted that the horsemeat fraud was a Europe-wide problem and urged all member states to share information rapidly in support of co-ordinated activity, including with Europol where appropriate in the case of active criminal investigations.
I drew attention to the scale of product testing by food businesses in the UK, with over 3,500 processed beef products having been tested by 22 February representing over 90% of retailers’ own products and over 80% of products supplied by manufacturers, caterers and wholesalers, of which over 99% contained no horse DNA at or above 1%. I welcomed the EU-wide testing programme and the fact that it covers testing for “bute” in horsemeat for human consumption. I drew attention to our consideration of ways of improving the current horse passport system. I also drew attention to the need to look further at the issues of horsemeat imports from outside the EU and asked the Commission for more information on horse movements within the EU. I made clear I saw a need for the testing programme to extend for two months beyond the initial one month. I also made clear that while the testing programme is essential to give consumers a clear picture of the extent of the problem, it is food businesses which have the primary responsibility for verifying that food is of the right quality and is correctly labelled.
I pressed the Commission, along with a number of other member states, to accelerate the production and publication of its report on extending mandatory country of origin labelling to meat in processed products and asked that this include a proper impact assessment so that we have evidence on the practicality and cost of extending mandatory origin labelling in this way and can avoid any unintended consequences.
I made clear that as this is a Europe-wide problem, while we would want to learn the lessons from this episode in the UK once the immediate incidents have been resolved, there needs to be a lessons learned exercise at European level.
The Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs undertook to try and speed up the report on mandatory origin labelling of meat in processed products but did not commit to a specific time scale. The Commission would prepare an overview report of member state official controls on hygiene, veterinary drugs and horse passports.
The presidency concluded that many member states had called on the Commission to speed up delivery of the origin labelling report. I asked for this subject to be on the agenda of the next meeting of the Agriculture Council on 18 and 19 March.