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Food Adulteration

Volume 559: debated on Thursday 7 March 2013

On 25 and 27 February I updated the House on the discussions I have had on the adulteration of food in the UK with the food industry and at a European level. I continue to have regular update discussions with the Food Standards Agency and I shall also be meeting the food industry on a regular basis.

Obviously, this is not just about adulteration with horsemeat. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that consumers have the right to know everything about the content of food that is sold to them. Will he reassure the House about whether he has done a proper analysis of the capacity of British laboratories to undertake the research necessary to give consumers the confidence that they are entitled to?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and entirely agree that no matter what the price of a product, it must be as marked on the label and as sold. To do otherwise is a fraud on the public. He asks about laboratory capacity. We need only look at what has happened: in an extraordinarily short time in recent weeks, the industry has conducted 5,430 tests that have shown that less than 1% of the products are adulterated.

May I draw the House’s attention to a non-declarable interest as a former employee of the Meat Hygiene Service? It costs approximately £170 to test each slaughtered horse for bute, yet the meat is worth only about £300. The industry has talked a lot about full cost recovery, so will the Minister tell the House when the taxpayer will stop having to pick up the bill for bute testing and how much he estimates the total bill will be?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, which is very relevant. We have cauterised the problem of bute getting into the food chain, as no horse carcase can enter the food chain until it has tested negative for bute, but he is right to raise that question. This is a holding position. I had a meeting with senior members of the horse industry recently because the horse passport scheme that we inherited is unsatisfactory. We will make proposals on that in due course.

The Food Standards Agency has a big role to play in this regard and I believe that it has failed to step up to the plate. Following the capability review that was completed in January and the work being undertaken by the National Audit Office, when might the Government be minded to make proposals to reform the FSA?

I have to remind my hon. Friend and the House that this is an overall European competence. Under regulation 178/2002 we must work within the European regime, and having an independent agency is very much part of that. I pay tribute to the work that the agency has conducted under great pressure in recent weeks, working very closely with the industry and conducting an extraordinarily large number of tests—5,430, as I said. Once we have seen where this criminal conspiracy began and once we have found the criminals—I remind the House that this is an international problem, with 23 countries involved—we will begin to look at the lessons learned. I am clear that within this regime we must have more testing of product and more random testing of finished product.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the lessons that we can learn from this is to have much better, honest labelling and to know exactly where our processed meat product comes from and that it is produced to good farm-assured standards such as the red tractor scheme in this country?

I agree that clearer labelling could help, but we are up against a criminal conspiracy and I think the criminals would have got through. I had a constructive meeting with the French, German, Austrian and Finnish Ministers in Brussels last week, and we are asking the European Commission to accelerate its report on the labelling and marking of the country of origin.

On 22 February Sodexo announced that it had found horsemeat in a beef product and withdrew meat from schools in Gloucestershire, Southampton and Leicestershire and the armed forces. Sodexo has refused publicly to name the product, the level of horse adulteration or the meat company which supplied it, thereby preventing other organisations from knowing whether their supplies are at risk. The Government know the name of that meat supplier. Will the Secretary of State now name that company so that the rest of the public sector can check its supplies?

I discussed this issue yesterday with the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, who is completely satisfied that the information required from Sodexo has been supplied. The hon. Lady must understand that there is an investigation going on and in some of these cases it might lead to criminal prosecution. [Interruption.] No, the FSA is clear that it must be guarded about what information can be revealed in case the investigations are impinged upon.

I find that answer extraordinary. The Secretary of State has a duty to tell the public what he knows and in every other case where supermarkets and other suppliers have found adulterated meat products, their suppliers have been named. How is the public sector supposed to check?

I want to move on to a letter from John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, who sent this letter from High Peak Meat Exports to DEFRA in April 2011. It warned the Government that bute-contaminated horsemeat could illegally enter the human food chain because of failures with the horse passport system, which I have raised in the House before. On 17 February the Secretary of State ordered an urgent investigation into those claims. What has that investigation found, and has he discovered why his Government colleagues ignored that warning?

To clarify the previous answer, Sodexo made it clear to all its customers which products there was a problem with. It has withdrawn them all but in the case of an investigation which might grow criminal, it would not be sensible to reveal names of suppliers. This is a criminal conspiracy which covers 23 different countries, and it does not help the police to arrive at prosecutions if information is revealed.

On horse passports, we are clear that we have fixed the problem of bute getting into the food chain. No carcases will get into the food chain until they have tested negative for bute. That is absolutely clear, and we are clear that the horse passport regime which we inherited from the hon. Lady’s party needs reforming, and we will do that in due course.