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Horsemeat Fraud

Volume 561: debated on Monday 15 April 2013

I would like to update the House on developments since the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement on 26 March 2013, Official Report, column 90WS, on the latest results from the testing of beef products for the presence of horsemeat and on plans for reviewing lessons learned.

On 9 April, the Food Standards Agency published further test results from the first two phases of the UK-wide authenticity survey of beef products on sale at a range of retail and catering outlets. These samples were collected by local authorities and were tested for both horse and pig DNA by public analysts. Results for four of the remaining five samples which had been in dispute have been confirmed. Two samples were found to contain horse DNA at the 1% reporting limit. Neither product was found to contain the veterinary drug phenylbutazone (known as “bute”) or pig DNA. The two other disputed samples, which did not contain horse DNA, were confirmed as being below 1% pig DNA and neither product was labelled as halal or kosher. This leaves results from one disputed sample still to be reported from the further independent analysis.

Therefore, from these latest results, out of a total of 362 samples taken from the first two phases of the UK-wide local authority survey, 354 were clear of both horse and pig DNA at the 1% reporting limit. Four samples have been confirmed as testing positive for horse DNA over 1% and three samples contained pig DNA over the 1% reporting limit. All these products were withdrawn from sale following receipt of the first test results and named on the Food Standards Agency website.

These results are in addition to the results of 5,430 industry tests reported to the House on 4 March 2013, Official Report, column 54WS, which indicated that over 99% of processed beef products found no horse DNA at or above 1%. The findings of phases 1 and 2 of the local authority survey are consistent with those from the tests carried out by the food industry. The results confirm that adulteration of beef products with horse or pork meat has been limited to a relatively small number of products.

The food industry has agreed to continue to provide data on their ongoing tests for horse DNA in processed beef products, with identification of individual products testing positive above the 1% reporting limit. Future reports on industry testing in the UK will be published quarterly, and the Food Standards Agency will publish the next results in early June. It will continue to report individual products testing positive above the 1% reporting limit as soon as they are confirmed by the food industry.

On 9 April Asda reported to the Food Standards Agency a positive test for the presence of very low levels of bute in its 340 gram tins of smart price corned beef. This product was tested by Asda as part of the industry testing programme and found to be positive for horse DNA above 1% and was withdrawn from Asda’s shelves on 8 March 2013. As with all products that tested positive for horse DNA over 1%, it was tested for bute, as required by the Food Standards Agency. Bute was present at a level of four parts per billion—4ppb. This level is close to the limits of laboratory detection so a very low level of bute has been found in this product. Since the horsemeat investigation began in January 2013, this is the only meat product that has tested positive for bute. Asda has recalled the product.

The chief medical officer has previously stated that horsemeat containing phenylbutazone at very low levels presents a very low risk to human health. In the UK horse carcasses must have a negative bute test before they are allowed to enter the food chain. The Food Standards Agency is currently investigating this specific issue and will take action as necessary. It also notified the European Commission on 10 April about this positive test result for bute via the rapid alert system for food and feed.

On 10 April, the Netherlands food and consumer product safety authority (NVWA) recalled 50,000 tonnes of meat sold as beef across Europe over a two-year period that may contain horsemeat. The Netherlands food and consumer product safety authority said 370 different companies around europe and 132 more in the Netherlands were affected by the recall because they bought meat from a Dutch trading company. The FSA have been informed by the Dutch authorities that a small number of UK businesses may have received products from the trading company that operates under the names of Willy Selten and Wiljo. As the NVWA was unable to say with certainty whether all of the customers had been identified, the authority took the unusual step of publishing Selten and Wiljo’s names. FSA are following up with these businesses as a matter of urgency.

At a European level, we are continuing to work closely with the Commission and other member states, sharing information via the rapid alert system for food and feed. The Commission have recently drawn up a five-point action plan including specific measures on the following: fighting food fraud, testing programme, horse passports, official controls and origin labelling. A copy of this plan has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. This five-point plan was discussed at an EU working group meeting of experts on 10 April which was a useful exchange of views in advance of further discussions at official level later this week. We have submitted UK data on our own testing programmes to the Commission. We expect the Commission to publish a summary of tests conducted by all member states on 16 April.

At its open meeting on 17 April, the board of the Food Standards Agency will consider a recommendation that it commissions an external review of its response to incidents of the adulteration of processed beef products with horse and pig meat and DNA. Such a review would be expected to make recommendations to the June board meeting on the relevant capacity and capabilities of the FSA and any actions that should be taken to maintain or build them.

With the Secretary of State for Health’s agreement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce a strategic review of the incident and its implications for the food chain and regulatory framework on behalf of our Departments shortly. This will be wide ranging, to restore and maintain consumer confidence in the food chain and consider the responsibilities of food businesses, and practice throughout the wider food chain, including: audit, testing, food authenticity, food safety and health issues. It will advise us of vulnerabilities within the food chain and its regulatory framework that might be exploited for other fraudulent activity. The review will also consider any wider implications of the Food Standards Agency review’s findings.

I reiterate that food fraud is completely unacceptable. Consumers must have confidence in the food they buy and have every right to expect that food is correctly described. UK investigations on this issue continue with the City of London police acting as the co-ordinating police authority. It is also right that any weaknesses in our food system and the controls it is subject to are identified and dealt with. I will continue to keep the House informed.