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Volume 743: debated on Thursday 14 February 2013


My Lords, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is providing the House with 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. 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 which led to the FSA and 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 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 on the outcome of his successful discussions in Europe yesterday. The co-ordinated control plan proposed by the Commission is a welcome step to address a pan-European problem. The FSA’s most recent tests on the presence of bute in horses slaughtered in the UK checked 206 horse carcasses. Eight have come 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 French authorities in an attempt to recall the meat from the food chain. I understand that the results of bute testing in the withdrawn Findus products have come back negative. The CMO and the CEO of the FSA will be making a statement on both of these matters later this morning.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a dairy farmer with experience of the food chain. In today’s industrial food chains, the situation that broke three weeks ago was never going to be the actions of one rogue supplier. Three weeks ago, my honourable friend the shadow environment Secretary of State, Mary Creagh, called on the Secretary of State to ensure that all horsemeat intended for human consumption is tested for substances harmful to human health such as bute. Why did the noble Lord’s department not order full testing and stipulate that horsemeat should be released only when it is clear from bute? Given that the evidence of what has gone on is destroyed when products are withdrawn from the shelves, will the FSA now take overall control of all product testing?

My Lords, at the Secretary of State’s suggestion, there was an official meeting with European Agriculture Ministers in Brussels yesterday to make sure that there is co-ordinated action across Europe on the horsemeat issue. Food businesses need to do whatever is necessary to provide assurance to consumers that their products are what they say they are, and we are expecting to see meaningful results from the industry testing by the end of the week. There is no evidence to suggest that there is a food safety risk.

In answer to the noble Lord’s specific question, the FSA issued a four-point plan on 16 January, the day after the Irish released their information. On 7 February, the issue for the UK changed when Findus’s test results showed that there were wrongly labelled products on the UK market. The Secretary of State immediately summoned the retailers to a meeting on 9 February. He is now in The Hague, co-ordinating European efforts to address what is clearly a Europe-wide issue.

As regards bute, the Chief Medical Officer has said:

“Horse meat containing phenylbutazone presents a very low risk to human health. Phenylbutazone, known as bute, is a commonly used medicine in horses. It is also prescribed to some patients who are suffering from a severe form of arthritis. At the levels of bute that have been found, a person would have to eat 500 to 600 burgers a day that are 100% horse meat to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose. And it passes through the system fairly quickly, so it is unlikely to build up in our bodies”.

Does my noble friend agree that in the context of this crisis labelling is crucially important? Is it not equally important that the labelling should show the country of origin? Is that not clearly the case with regard to this appalling trade in horsemeat across the European Union where live horses for slaughter may travel hundreds of miles from Poland to Italy to be killed there and labelled as Italian horsemeat?

My noble friend makes a very important point. Labelling is absolutely crucial here. What is in the tin must be declared properly on the label on the tin. I take his point about country of origin, and I will take that back, if I may.

My Lords, this is a deeply concerning crisis and potentially could impact on consumer confidence in the products that we produce here in the United Kingdom. I was involved in the 1990s in dealing with the deep concerns about food safety and the various crises that occurred at that time. We set up internal systems of traceability through insurance schemes. This is now known as the red tractor scheme. This crisis has led to a much deeper level of testing being required through DNA. That throws up a real issue around the thresholds to which we are prepared to accept tolerance of DNA testing. If we insist on zero tolerance, then butchers’ shops would have real difficulty in complying. Are the Minister and the department considering levels of tolerance for DNA testing?

That is an important question. The answer is yes. The FSA has advised that 1% is a level of evidence at which it can take action. This is a temporary level as we undertake urgent scientific work to set the most appropriate threshold. This is the level at which the FSA can be confident that the results are reliable for enforcement purposes.

My Lords, what discussions has the department had with the devolved Administrations, and what has been their outcome?

My Lords, there are ongoing, intense discussions with the devolved Administrations, particularly Northern Ireland. It is too early to say what the outcome will be, but the noble Lord can rest assured that we will be in close touch, not only with the devolved Administrations but, of course, with our colleagues all across the EU, as I indicated earlier.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the Statement outlining the steps that the Government are taking to deal with criminality. There is also the issue of consumer confidence. My noble friend said that he met retailers yesterday to discuss this and there have been other meetings with them. However, it is very disappointing that we have heard nothing publicly from retailers or their organisations to address the big issues of consumer confidence. Will my noble friend remind retailers when they next come to talk to Ministers of the need to do something publicly to promote confidence in high-quality, British, locally sourced meat?

My noble friend makes an extremely important point. We are in constant discussion with retailers. I suspect that they may be somewhat on the back foot at the moment. That might be why they have not done as she wishes. It is important that they are not overconfident. Clearly, there has been some pretty rum business going on. My noble friend is absolutely right that confidence is extremely important and that we must do what we can to bring that confidence back to the market. We will do that by taking the steps we are taking.

My Lords, I know that the Minister understands the importance of involving the European Union, the devolved Administrations and the FSA. I warmly congratulate the FSA on it robust response, but does the Minister agree that the time may well come, when the crisis has been taken past its immediate difficulties, for us to have a review involving the FSA, our European partners and the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have the most effective way of dealing with the international complexity of the food chain?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that what we have to do at the end of this is learn the important lessons. I entirely agree with him on that.

Is my noble friend aware of this problem arising elsewhere in the world—in other words, outside the European Union?

That is an interesting question. I am sure that countries in the rest of the world have their own problems. I am not aware of this specific problem arising elsewhere.

My Lords, will the Minister give a proper answer to my noble friend Lady Crawley, who after the previous Statement asked whether the cuts in resources for trading standards and the equivalent Meat Hygiene Service had had any effect on the effectiveness of enforcement? Secondly, in his assurances on health, will he assure me that the issue of people who are allergic to live horses has been covered in the possibilities of people being allergic to dead horsemeat? Thirdly, is his Secretary of State—a rabid anti-European—now convinced that European food chain issues can be resolved only by agreement at European level?

That is quite a mouthful, my Lords. On the first point, the FSA oversees a rigorous, risk-based system of checking by local authorities. More than 92,000 tests were carried out in 2011-12. The FSA has assured Ministers that the recent machinery of government changes have not impacted on its surveillance and testing. On the health issue of people being allergic to live horses, I am not aware that this translates into the dead horsemeat arena. I am reliably informed that there are no risks to health unless the meat is contaminated with bute. We covered that issue in connection with the previous Statement. I am amazed at the noble Lord’s suggestion about my right honourable friend’s attitude to Europe. He is in Europe today, discussing the matter with his European colleagues in a very collegiate fashion. The noble Lord can rest assured.

May I remind my noble friend that we in this Chamber are in Europe? May I also underline the previous comment that this is the moment for the Secretary of State to remind the country that if we want to protect our food chain, we have to do it from within the European Union, playing our proper part in it?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we are in Europe. My right honourable friend is of course in The Hague. Perhaps I should have said, “continental Europe”. He is not only co-operating but leading the way in helping Europe to tackle this problem.