Opposition Day — [17th( )Allotted Day] — Horsemeat

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:20 pm on 12th February 2013.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 2:20 pm, 12th February 2013

That is a separate debate. We would need to look at the costs of two separate lines, one for beef and one for pork. We need to reconsider what is acceptable as a trace and differentiate that from contamination. This debate is about gross contamination of 60% to 100%, and that is what is so offensive to consumers.

We need an assurance—whether from Romania, France, Poland, Ireland, Sweden or wherever—that exporting countries in the EU are conducting both physical and product labelling checks at the point of export. Until we have that assurance from the Commission, consumers will not have much confidence in the process. It is my firm, personal belief that if product checks had taken place, food contaminated with horsemeat would never have entered the food chain. However, the fact is that it is in the food chain; as far as we know, it is continuing to enter the food chain; and we are continuing to find more contamination in frozen foods.

I practised in the EU many years ago, so my knowledge of EU law is extremely rusty, but the Cassis de Dijon case involved the passing off of an inferior alcoholic product as Cassis to go into such drinks as kir royale and other luxury products. The inferior product clearly did not fit the bill. I understand that the member state concerned was allowed, for a temporary period, to suspend imports of products being passed off as something else until such time as a ruling could be given.

All I am asking is for the Government to stop this chain of events. There are 27 member states, or however many there are now, relying on the Food Safety Act 1990, which is entirely compatible with European food labelling regulations. I would imagine that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have huge support from all other member states in the European Union, but until we can again inspire confidence in the food industry and allow the retailers to get on with what they are good at—delivering safe, healthy food to our supermarkets—then we ought to recognise what other hon. Members have said today. This is an opportunity to recognise the excellence of British-produced beef, and to try to see to what extent that can be used.

I accept the Secretary of State’s point about a premium product now going for premium prices, but he must accept that the labelling provisions, the traceability and the additional animal welfare conditions that we in this country uniquely impose on our producers have increased cost. Farm-gate prices are going down. Feed costs have gone up. The cost of transporting animals to slaughter has gone up. Slaughterhouses are fewer and further apart. We ought to use this as an opportunity to encourage retailers to look to sourcing locally produced beef for their processed and frozen products. I celebrate the contribution of the beef industry and other meat industries to the UK, not just to locally sourced food. Much that is produced in Thirsk, Malton and Filey will go abroad for breeding purposes, because of the uniqueness and life history of each particular herd.

This debate is timely. Perhaps the FSA has been caught on the back foot. When in November the FSA was told by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that DNA tests were to be conducted on particular products entering the food chain through our supermarkets, it was a wake-up call to the FSA here to do similar tests. It was of concern to the Select Committee to hear that the original contamination could have been in the food chain for up to one year—who knows, it might have been longer. We need to get to the bottom of this. I accept the assurance that criminal proceedings will follow, but we all know that the wheels of the law move extremely slowly. The Secretary of State has the opportunity tomorrow to take this argument to Europe. It is a Europe-wide problem so we must have a Europe-wide solution. I believe that the answer lies in our food-labelling provisions and European law. I hope that this debate will give him every power to his elbow in tomorrow’s negotiations.