Contamination of Beef Products

– in the House of Commons at 12:04 pm on 14th February 2013.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 12:04 pm, 14th February 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of the publication of the Eighth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946.

It give me great pleasure to take this opportunity, for which the Select Committee is extremely grateful, to launch our report on the contamination of beef products, our eighth report. I am particularly grateful for all the support of colleagues on the Committee and for the swift turnaround in taking the initial evidence and receiving it in written form. We are grateful to those who gave evidence, as we are to those on the Committee secretariat who helped us to prepare the report.

This is a matter of huge public interest. Our earlier report in July last year dealt with desinewed meat, and I want to refer to the conclusion drawn by a former director of the Food Standards Agency that there is a direct correlation between the Commission’s unilateral ban on desinewed meats in this country and the entry of suspicious filler products in March last year. We conclude that the scale of contamination is breathtaking. This is a European crisis requiring a European solution. One month on, we are still no clearer as to where the suspicious substance enters the food chain. Today we heard from the Farming Minister of doubts being cast on the effectiveness of the European horse passport system.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for giving way and congratulate her on the report. She makes a valid point: we do not know where the horsemeat entered the food chain. Does she agree that not knowing that means that we do not know where it originated or what premises the horses were slaughtered at? They could be unlicensed premises.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

That is probably one of the most worrying aspects. What we do know is that since our evidence session on 30 January, horse and pig DNA contamination was found in more beef products. Samples of Findus lasagne contained more than 60% horsemeat, Aldi lasagne and spaghetti bolognaise contained between 30% and 100% horsemeat, and beef products certified as halal supplied to prisons in England and Wales were found to contain pork DNA. Today we learn that bute has been identified in eight samples of beef products.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton

I thank the hon. Lady for chairing the Committee and bringing us the report. Does she agree that it is now more important then ever for people to know exactly where the processed product has been made, exactly what the ingredients are and exactly where they have come from, so that we can have confidence and use the Red Tractor and farm assured schemes to ensure that people know where their food has come from?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I shall come to that very point. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and fellow member of the Committee.

The Food Standards Agency is an independent, arm’s length, non-ministerial body. The question we ask is: to whom is the FSA accountable? It was found on this occasion to be flatfooted. We note that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland informed of its testing in November, but the FSA UK started testing only when those results were known, on 15 January. We draw the conclusion that no statutory powers are given to require testing. We also note a need for the FSA to co-operate more with its European counterparts across the European Union.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Lady will know from the front of The Times today and from her own Select Committee that the former Agriculture Minister, Sir James Paice, spoke to her Committee last summer and warned that unlawful meat would be imported from Europe as manufacturers sought cheap sources to make up for banned British supplies. She said the FSA was flatfooted. Does she think the Government should have been more ready for that possibility, given that one of their former Ministers had warned of that very thing in front of her Committee last summer?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has referred to conclusion 8 in our report, which is entirely relevant. I note with some sadness, as I represent one of the largest meat-producing areas in the country, that that one decision led to the loss of 30 jobs in my constituency. No other ban has been imposed on any other member state, and we are importing that so-called Baader meat, a similarly produced meat, and substandard —I would say—filler meat as well.

The one welcome aspect, to which my hon. Friend Neil Parish referred, is that there appears to have been a change in shopping habits over the past month. The one shining light is that we can have absolute confidence in home-produced beef and other British meats. We are now buying more British beef, more local meat from butchers and farm shops and more meat marked with the Red Tractor logo at the supermarket. The Red Tractor signifies that the entire food chain has been traced from farm to plate. It shows that the highest animal welfare and hygiene standards have been met. The farmers pay for the inspections. I believe that that is the flagship that should be used for good traceability for all imports. They should meet the same high standards and be as transparent for processed and frozen meats as they are for fresh, whether the meat comes from home, Europe or third countries.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the way in which she courteously and expeditiously steered the Committee to the report. Does she share my astonishment that companies such as Tesco, which conducts minute product checks on our farmers’ fruit and vegetables, often causing them huge financial loss for misshapen produce, seem to have failed to do any checks on processed meat products? Might that be because they believed such checks could reveal some very inconvenient truths?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I say to my fellow Committee member—dare I say my hon. Friend?—that that is worrying, and I will refer to those checks later. The Committee was astonished to learn that the cost of the checks—he will correct me if I am wrong—is in the region of £1 million to £2 million for one product line. Following the urgent question earlier today, we should be under no illusion that the cost of food will regrettably go up, but this is a wake-up call and an invitation to source more British meat going into frozen and processed foods, in particular. I believe that that will swiftly restore consumer confidence in those products.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Did the Committee consider whether a temporary ban on imports from the European Union would benefit everyone? Surely the processed meat industry in this country must be devastated, because no one will be keen to buy while there is a danger that there might be something wrong with the meat. If the processed products were made using only British meat, there would be no problem.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

We have yet to conclude all our evidence and have not had the opportunity to consider that point, but I am sure that we will.

There are insufficient controls in the food chain to protect consumers from contaminated and potentially unsafe food. We think that this is an opportunity to examine the whole food supply chain. Consumers have been let down by retailers who took on trust the assurances of their suppliers—that addresses the point made by my friend Barry Gardiner. Many consumers rely on supermarkets for their weekly shop and take it on trust that labels are accurate. This situation is worrying precisely because Tesco and other retailers were trying to produce economy products at low cost. The drive to lower costs increases the likelihood of fraud, and that is the point of view of the National Farmers Union. Meat processors also have procedures to check and document sources of raw material, but they do not include DNA testing.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her excellent report and on her Committee’s endeavours. On the point about consumer confidence, one of the things that is traceable now is the customer. With their loyalty cards, the big supermarkets know who their customers are and what they are buying. Will she and her Committee encourage the big super- markets, at a time of crisis like this, to communicate directly with their customers to offer them the reassurance they seek?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I believe that that will be an inevitable consequence of the exercise, and I hope that they will respond positively to that invitation.

Obviously, substituting horsemeat for beef, which is what has been discovered, is described as criminal activity and will be investigated. We are obviously delighted that the perpetrators will face the full force of the law. However, the potential shortcomings are particularly worrying, because the food industry currently appears unable to account for ingredients in all its foodstuffs. We conclude that it is improbable that those who are prepared to pass horsemeat off as beef illegally will apply the high hygiene standards that we require and that consumers expect in food production. With regard to lessons to be learnt, we strongly believe that the FSA has to be more fleet of foot. It must be given the tools to do the job. It currently has no statutory power to require testing by producers, taking into account the level of risk.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

The hon. Lady rightly says that the FSA needs greater powers, but does she agree that the increasing length and complexity of supply chains inevitably make such risks more likely and that, therefore, as well as strengthening the FSA, we need a far more radical look at re-localising our food supplies?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Absolutely. As I said, consumers have responded to the challenge by buying more locally, and I hope that they will continue to do so. For example, if we buy meat for a Sunday roast or stew and then freeze what is left over to serve in other ways over the week, we are basically processing the food ourselves, and that will lead to a much better understanding of what we are eating. I entirely take the hon. Lady’s point.

The Committee’s view is that the FSA has been reduced to a food safety body. We believe that its powers were weakened in 2010. It told us that labelling policy was “not really for us” because that is not a food safety issue.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

With regard to the EU regulation that would allow certain national derogations, which the Government are consulting on at the moment, does my hon. Friend agree that when responding we should consider very carefully the implications that we have now seen?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I am delighted that we do conclude that that approach should be taken, as I will mention in my closing remarks. It was very much Barry Gardiner who proposed that, and the Committee was absolutely at one with him in that view.

Although policy is rightly the responsibility of Ministers, we are firmly of the view that the FSA’s diminished role has led to a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies, which has weakened the UK’s ability to identify and respond to food health concerns. Furthermore, the current contamination crisis has caught the FSA and the Government flat-footed and unable to respond effectively within structures that were designed primarily to respond to threats to human health. I believe that this is a firm wake-up call. Having had the BSE and foot and mouth crisis, we have perhaps been a little slack in our food inspections. We conclude that the FSA’s testing regime is weak. It was Ireland’s FSA that identified the contamination, using tests not currently used in the UK, which leads us to question whether the UK’s FSA is at the forefront of scientific analysis.

In our conclusions and recommendations, we state that the Government and the FSA have called for a wide range of tests to be undertaken, which we welcome. I am sure that the whole Committee would welcome the European tests that have been announced. I firmly believe that we need a European solution. We need to examine the whole supply chain. In the urgent question earlier today, an hon. Friend said that the miles and the number of countries that these ingredients have travelled through before ending up on our plates in processed and frozen foods is staggering.

The FSA should be responsible for food safety. It should be given the statutory power to require those in the food industry to undertake tests to determine that their products comply with food standards regulations. That process should be risk-based and proportionate, and the results of all tests, whether mandated by the FSA or carried out independently by the retailers themselves, should be reported to the FSA. As regards the European testing that was announced yesterday, we must ask to whom the results will be reported and whether they will be shared across the piece with all the responsible national authorities.

We want strengthened testing regimes in the UK meat industry. We want to know what the Government are doing to improve the operation of the European horse passport system, given that the Minister said earlier that it is not as effective as we would wish. The Government must also explore how best to avoid future contamination and to achieve the correct balance between affordable food prices and regulations to ensure transparency and quality.

In my constituency, we face a deep crisis in the sheep sector. Across the north of England, and I am sure in many other parts of the country, there is a real fear of sheep producers going to the wall. Most farmers have used their winter storage but are unable to allow sheep to forage because the grass is under snow or deep under water. I personally believe that this is a very worrying development. Farm gate prices have gone down and the costs of farm production have gone up. The cost of foodstuffs is going up, the cost of fuel to take animals to market has gone up, and farm gate prices are going down.

We have seen the constant drive by supermarkets to store on their shelves low-value, low-cost, and, we now know, very suspicious adulterated food. We are worried that the consumer will be caught in a Catch-22 situation between paying the costs of higher traceability, labelling and testing standards and having to accept that they will not be provided with comprehensive information about the provenance and composition of the food they eat. There are strong indications that people with criminal intent have intentionally substituted horsemeat for beef. That leads us to conclude that British consumers have been cynically and systematically duped in pursuit of profit by certain elements within the food industry. As my hon. Friend Sheryll Murray and the hon. Member for Brent North said, this is not the time, given the current crisis of labelling and traceability, for the Government to be seeking through their consultation a derogation to reduce the labelling requirements for beef or other meat products,

We are calling for more testing of food safety and composition across the European food industry because the current arrangements for testing and control have failed UK consumers. The Food Standards Agency needs clear powers and responsibilities to back up what Ministers are demanding that it do, and what consumers expect from it, so that it can respond more effectively to any future food adulteration scandal. It gives me great pleasure to commend the Committee’s eighth report to the House.

Question put and agreed to.