My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will repeat a Statement made today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in another place. The Statement is as follows:
"Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on recent developments on horsemeat and food fraud.
The events we have seen unfold over the past few days in the UK and Europe are completely unacceptable. Consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label. It is outrageous that consumers have been buying products labelled beef but which turn out to contain horsemeat. The Government are taking urgent action with the independent Food Standards Agency, industry and European partners.
Let me turn first to the facts. On
On the evening of
Food regulation is an area of European competence. Under the European legal framework, the main responsibility for the safety and authenticity of food lies with those who produce, sell or provide it to the consumer. In the UK, the FSA was set up by the previous Government as an independent agency. I have sought to respect its independence. It leads the operational response. I am here today to update the House on progress with its investigations and on the action that I have been taking with the industry and with European counterparts. I have made clear my expectation that food businesses need to do whatever is necessary to provide assurance to consumers that their products are what they say they are.
The Minister of State and the FSA met food retailers and suppliers on
Let me reiterate: the immediate testing of products will be done across the supply chain. This includes suppliers to schools, hospitals and prisons as well as to retailers. The FSA issued advice to public service providers on
The ultimate source of these incidents is still being investigated, but it is already clear that we are dealing with Europe-wide supply networks. I am taking action to ensure that there is effective liaison with the European Commission and other member states. I have been in touch with Irish Minister, Simon Coveney, on several occasions since
At the moment, this appears to be an issue of fraud and mislabelling, but if anything suggests the need for changes to surveillance and enforcement in the UK, we will not hesitate to make those changes. Once we have established the full facts of the current incidents and identified where enforcement action can be taken, we will want to look at the lessons to be learnt from this episode. I will make a further Statement about this in due course.
In conclusion, I want to reiterate that I completely understand why people are so concerned about this issue. It is unacceptable that people have been deceived in this way. There appears to have been criminal activity in an attempt to defraud the consumer. The prime responsibility for dealing with this lies with retailers and food producers, who need to demonstrate that they have taken all necessary actions to ensure the integrity of the food chain in this country. I am in daily contact with the FSA. This week, I will be having further contact with European counterparts and will meet the food industry again, together with the FSA, tomorrow".
That concludes the Statement.
My Lords, this is a very serious issue of public confidence in the food that we buy. I share the Minister's outrage that horsemeat is being passed off as beef. Food prices are rising sharply and those having to buy cheaper food are therefore more likely to buy processed and cheaper sources of meat. We must particularly ensure that these people are confident that food standards and labelling are accurate.
Equally, food processing and manufacturing is one of the most important employers in this country. British food is an area of great potential growth for us and we must do all that we can to maintain and sustain confidence in our industry. In that vein, I am grateful to the Foods Standards Agency for its briefing and its work in providing reassurance that there is no risk to health.
However, I am concerned at the Secretary of State's media performances over the weekend, which will have raised doubts in some people's minds over health. For example, he said:
"We may find out, as the week progresses as the tests begin to come in, that there is a substance which is injurious to human health ... We have no evidence of that at all at the moment. At the moment this is a labelling issue".
He is sowing the seeds of doubt. For the sake of clarity, will the Minister be clear now as to whether he believes there to be any risk to human health from food sold as processed beef in this country?
Health worries focus on the traceability of horsemeat, and in particular any bute or other medicines consumed by horses entering the food chain. In 2012, the Food Standards Agency found eight instances where UK horsemeat was contaminated with bute, which is banned from entering the human food chain. In five instances the horsemeat was exported to France, in two it was exported to the Netherlands, and in one it was consumed in the UK.
There are 75 horse passport-issuing organisations in the UK, making it difficult to check their status. Each has a different design of passports, making it easier to produce forgeries. Last May, a truck was seized in this country and false horse passports were seized. I gather that abattoirs do not have to keep records of passports but should return them to owners or to Defra. Is it not time to rationalise this system so that we can trace horsemeat properly?
I also understand that the FSA carries out rigorous inspections in abattoirs. Does it inspect further upstream in manufacturing and processing plants? If not, should that now be introduced as random inspections to increase public assurance up the supply chain? Will he guarantee that cuts to the Food Standards Agency have not, and will not-the Secretary of State again was very uncertain about this in a Channel 4 news report that I saw over the weekend-compromised meat hygiene inspections and its ability to ensure that meat is legal and safe?
The Minister will know that his Government removed responsibility for the labelling of product content from the FSA in 2010. Three government bodies are now responsible for ensuring that our food is correctly labelled, legal and safe: namely, Defra, the Department of Health, and the Food Standards Agency. Is that not incoherent and open to the sorts of confusion that we all know can occur between different government departments? Would it not be sensible for the Government to centralise that function once more?
I understand that two types of tests are taking place-those carried out by retailers and those carried out by local authorities under the supervision of the Food Standards Agency. The local authority tests are of retail, wholesale and catering premises. Are the councils concerned being reimbursed for the cost of this work? The tests being carried out by retailers, which are due to the Secretary of State by Friday, will cover only the major retailers. Should he not ask large wholesalers and large caterers to carry out similar tests under a similar stringent timeline?
The timeline for the local authority tests is four weeks to collect and screen samples to ascertain the presence of horse DNA and another four weeks for confirmatory tests to give the proportion of other meats. As I understand it, the plan is for all those results to be published at once in mid-April. This seems an excessive timeline. I understand that we have to get the results right, but will the Minister consider releasing the results on a weekly basis as they come in, as part of his commitment to transparency? Can we also get a cast iron guarantee that schools and hospitals will be tested across the country? The Secretary of State is clear that the retailers are responsible for the food that they sell. Will the Minister tell us who he considers to be responsible for food served in schools, hospitals and prisons? Is it the head teacher or the chair of governors, the hospital manager or the prison governor? If it is the retailer who is responsible, we need to know who to hold account for food, should there be a problem in those circumstances.
The Secretary of State has also speculated in the media that there is a criminal conspiracy. Has the Minister involved the police, having acknowledged evidence of widespread criminal behaviour? Is he passing information on to the police if he has those suspicions? Can he reassure us that no UK companies are currently being investigated by Defra, the FSA or other UK authorities in respect of passing off horsemeat as beef?
Can the Minister tell us, given the Government's growing influence as committed Europeans, how he is working with the Commission? The Irish appear to have blamed the Poles for the first case back in January, the French appear to blame the Romanians for the Findus case, and the Poles and Rumanians are denying responsibility robustly. Is the Commission going to get a grip and answer questions on where the horsemeat comes from so that we can begin the important work of traceability?
However, it is not just the Commission that needs to get a grip. We need the Government to give clear advice to people and public sector caterers on what they should do with their frozen beef products. Ministers need to stop sending mixed messages about whether they would eat beef lasagne or not. A full police investigation into the alleged criminal adulteration of meet products is needed. The European police are being involved. We have heard about an international criminal conspiracy. What is happening with the UK police? The Irish Government called in the police and special fraud investigators at the beginning of this month. Perhaps our Government must do the same.
A quicker testing regime is needed to reassure the public about what is happening. Supermarkets and food industry tests must be reported by Friday, but the Government need to speed up the official tests that they are conducting across 28 local authorities. We need some positive release around the horse slaughter tests that are going on at the moment. Those in the UK are testing for bute, which is banned from the human food chain. Given the concerns about the horse passport system and horse traceability, we believe that meat should be held in storage until proven clean.
With these sorts of measures and robust action from Ministers on the front foot, I think that we can get some reassurance back into our food supply. At the moment, I do not see that from Ministers. I see uncertainty in their media performances and their performances generally on this issue. Our British food industry needs them to step up to the plate and raise their game.
My Lords, the Secretary of State held an urgent meeting with food businesses on Saturday to get to the bottom of this unacceptable situation. The Government and the FSA insisted that more and tougher testing will take place. The food industry has accepted this, and we expect to see initial results from industry testing by the end of the week. Retailers and industry bodies will now work with the FSA on making checks further down the food chain. They have also agreed to let the FSA know as soon as they become aware of a potential problem in their products. At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that there is a food safety risk.
The noble Lord asked about the split of responsibilities. By law, retailers are ultimately responsible for ensuring their products' safety and accurate labelling. However, we join up across government to back this up with nearly 100,000 risk-based checks each year. The front-line testing regime checks that what is in the packet is what it says on the packet and was the same before 2010 as it has been since. There continues to be a rigorous risk-based system of checks by local authorities' trading standards teams, overseen by the FSA. That is how the testing works.
The noble Lord asked about public sector purchasing, and he is right to do so. Public institutions are within the scope of the UK-specific authenticity sampling programme and, therefore, suppliers of meat products to schools, hospitals and prisons are included in the local authority surveillance programme. In addition, suppliers including caterers to public institutions are part of the extensive testing regime that the Food Standards Agency has established with the food industry, including food service businesses, to reinforce the integrity and confidence of processed beef supplies in Britain. This approach means that we will have an established industry testing approach, with the FSA undertaking additional verification and validation of authenticity, which ensures that industry takes responsibility for providing assurance to consumers, with the FSA providing appropriate oversight.
The noble Lord asked about local authorities and mentioned that results of testing were to come mid-April. My right honourable friend spoke to the chairman of the FSA today, and test results will be announced as soon as they are available, which is what the noble Lord asked for. He asked, too, about police involvement. The FSA is in touch with the police and Europol. We are investigating the food chain at the moment. The police have been informed and will take action if they find that people in this country have been deliberately defrauding consumers. If criminal activity has taken place abroad, the relevant authorities will be notified.
The noble Lord asked about collaboration with our European colleagues. The Statement mentions a certain amount about that. The Secretary of State spoke to EU Commissioner Borg today, and to Ministers in countries including Ireland, France and Romania. There will be meetings at official and ministerial level over the next few days and we will do all we can to assist in tracing sources of the meat in question.
The noble Lord asked about testing of horses killed in abattoirs for bute. Hitherto, under the regime that we inherited from the previous Government, we conducted risk-based testing, backed up by the passporting system. From now on, all horses going to abattoirs are being tested for bute and no horse carcasses can leave an abattoir until they are declared clear.
My Lords, there are clearly various aspects to this problem-the criminality, misleading of the general public and the issue of food safety. The Minister has given us an assurance today that there is no risk to food safety. May I press him on this issue and ask him a question? I understand that the science of veterinary medicine as it might pass on to food consumption for humans is based on minimum residue levels, but there are a number of veterinary medicines that do not subject themselves to that classification, such as phenylbutazone, which he mentioned, and many others. These medicines pose a risk to human health. We have a very elaborate and rigorous system of testing for those medicines, but this problem has emanated, as I understand it, not primarily from the United Kingdom but from other parts of Europe. Do other European countries test horsemeat with the same rigour for veterinary medicines-because that is where the danger is-as we do?
Absolutely. He said:
"A Scotsman's beliefIs that mince must be beef.Imitations bring instant dismissal.But some people abroadWill contentedly plodThrough a plate full of horsemeat and gristle".
I thank my noble friend and point out to her that the occasion of which she speaks occurred no less than 14 years before I arrived in your Lordships' House.
My Lords, following the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clark, does the Minister agree that phenylbutazone is an active carcinogenic agent? If within the next two weeks the FSA is satisfied that there is evidence of such contaminated horsemeat having come into the United Kingdom or, indeed, any other meat that is contaminated by veterinary processes in the way described by the noble Lord, will the Secretary of State ban forthwith all horsemeat products coming to our shores?
My Lords, I share the seriousness with which the noble Lord takes the issue of bute. I have spoken about it at some length. He will know that imposing a ban is no small matter. Indeed, the onus is on the exporting member state to ensure that meat produced on its territory meets animal and public health requirements laid down in EU legislation. We have legislation in place to provide for a ban on imports where there are grounds for suspecting a serious threat to public or animal health. I hope that satisfies the noble Lord.
My Lords, I am certain the Minister would agree that consumers have a right to expect that the food they eat is what it says on the label and that it is legal and safe. As president of Trading Standards, I know that trading standards officers across local authorities are doing all in their power to locate and remove any affected food in the current crisis. However, how does the Minister think it is possible for Trading Standards, working with the FSA and their partners in environmental health, to maintain proper targeted surveillance of the UK-wide food sector when food sampling budgets have been cut by approximately 50% over the past five years-most of it in the past two years-and when Trading Standards has lost 700 officers over the same period in local authority cutbacks? Something has to give.
My Lords, it is right that industry should be responsible for the safety and authenticity of the food it produces and sells, which is why the Government work with it to maintain confidence in the food chain. All systems of standards and quality control depend to a certain extent on self-regulation and due diligence. While the Government have a role in checking and monitoring industry, particularly where there are public health issues, non-regulatory approaches and agreements can be just as effective and can be achieved faster than legislation. This can be seen in our approach over recent days, where government and industry have come together with a joint aim of maintaining consumer confidence in the food chain.
My Lords, I return to the question of the contamination of halal meat, which got a brief reference in the Statement and has real implications for faith communities and faith relationships. This may not have been a matter of deliberate fraud but it must have been dangerously careless. Can the Minister give us more reassurance on the action taken by the food industry as regards finding non-halal traces in allegedly halal food, including in food supplied by government contracts such as prison suppliers?
My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the right reverend Prelate that it is essential that people can have confidence that what they are eating is what it is made out to be. There is responsibility throughout the food chain. Suppliers are responsible for what they supply onwards to other organisations and businesses. We are reminding public bodies of their responsibility for their own food contracts. We expect them to have rigorous procurement procedures in place with reputable suppliers. We expect caterers and suppliers to public institutions to have appropriate controls, including testing and sampling regimes, in place to ensure the authenticity of their products. If caterers have any doubts about the provenance of their product, they should seek assurance from their suppliers.
When I was Secretary of State for Scotland, I had to deal with an E.coli crisis, the BSE crisis and a problem with some radioactive gas being delivered to the Barr's Irn Bru factory. Therefore, I have considerable sympathy with my right honourable friend in dealing with a food crisis of this kind. Will my noble friend accept our congratulations on the way in which the Secretary of State has handled it and reject the criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who I am not sure realises that the chairman of the FSA is one of his colleagues-the noble Lord, Lord Rooker? Between them, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the Secretary of State and his colleagues have done an excellent job in balancing the need to give the public information with the need not to destroy businesses. Going back to the BSE crisis, the French unilaterally imposed a ban on Scottish grass-fed beef, which lasted for several years and did enormous damage. My right honourable friend is to be congratulated on not operating in a way that is damaging to the interests of businesses throughout the United Kingdom and, indeed, throughout Europe, while at the same time taking sensible measures which are required to protect the public interest.
My Lords, the Minister has repeatedly said that there is no evidence of a threat to food safety, which is obviously welcome news. However, he glossed over an answer to the question asked by my noble friend Lady Crawley. There have been massive reductions in the resources available to local Trading Standards to pursue proper food safety tests. Further, the number of food inspectors has been reduced. This clearly poses a risk. If there is potentially criminal fraudulent activity involving the substitution of one form of meat for another, could there not also be criminal activity involving cavalierly ignoring hygiene regulations or the rules on additives? What assurances can the Minister give us that those matters will be addressed properly in the future?
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the Government take these issues extremely seriously. The FSA has certainly not dropped its guard. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth, said, it has been doing an extremely good job in very difficult circumstances and the Government are supporting it in that. As I explained earlier, the nature of sampling is risk based and focused on protecting consumers. Staff reductions have not affected the level of testing carried out on meat. Meat produced in UK approved slaughterhouses is inspected by official veterinarians and meat inspectors working under their direction. They also ensure that meat hygiene regulations are complied with in abattoirs and meat establishments.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the length of the food chain is part of the problem? For example, in one lasagne you can get four or five sorts of meat from different sources, even if they all comprise beef. There are all sorts of things that people could mistrust, such as salami made from donkey. Labelling is absolutely crucial. If I may say so, checking as much as we can is only ever going to be a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted.
My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with much of what my noble friend said. She is right: our supply chains are complicated nowadays but that is how the market has developed and we have to work with that. She is also right that labelling is absolutely key. We must ensure that it is accurate.
My Lords, I have been involved in the food chain literally since I could walk, and an awful lot of people outside this Chamber or the other place would not know what bute was. Is it perhaps worth having a tiny statement by the Government telling people what bute is and the fact that it poses a very low risk to human health?
Yes, my Lords. I have spoken at some length on bute, which, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, is a substance administered to horses with evidence of lameness or whatever to enable them to go about their business. The whole purpose of the passporting system is to ensure that a substance such as bute does not get into the food chain.
I very much welcome the Government's recent announcement that proper cookery lessons are to be reintroduced into our schools, and I hope that there will be more home-made lasagnes rather than those that are pre-bought. However, given the fact that a lot of people rely on convenience foods and trust in brands, and if it is established that there is a problem with equine medicines in the food chain, is there an intention to look at foods such as stock, which is a concentrated product that is widely used domestically and commercially? Is any testing being carried out because of the obvious implications beyond those for beef?
My noble friend makes an important point and I agree with her. I can add to my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. Phenylbutazone, known as bute, is a commonly used veterinary product and is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Bute is not approved for use in food-producing animals because it is not known to be safe for human consumption. An animal that has been treated with bute is not permitted to enter the food chain.
My Lords, is this whole sad saga not an exemplary indication that if we are to look to the well-being of the British people, we must put all our efforts into effectively working together with the people and Governments of Europe to resolve issues that can be resolved only on a basis wider than our own national frontiers?
My Lords, I could not have put it better myself and, as I explained, my right honourable friend has been in touch not only with the European Commissioner today but with Ministers from the various other European member states involved. It is extremely important that we collaborate very closely with them.
My Lords, the Irish were acting on intelligence. They conducted their test and, lo and behold, they found horsemeat. We had not received similar intelligence but I have no doubt that our testing regime is absolutely rigorous.
My Lords, under European Commission Regulation 504/2008, a vet must record in a horse passport all treatments with veterinary medicinal products, which determines whether a horse can enter the food chain. Are Her Majesty's Government satisfied that this part of the regulation is being adhered to? The occupier of a slaughterhouse must hand the passport of a slaughtered horse to the vets at the slaughterhouse, who must record the microchip number of the animal, mark the passport accordingly and send it to the issuing authority. Are the Minister and the Government satisfied that that is happening in every case?
My Lords, the appearance is certainly that that is the case, but that matter will be part of the ongoing investigations. Perhaps I may add to my answer to my noble friend Lady Browning on whether we test stock, as in stock cubes. It would be very difficult to test stock cubes because there will be little or no DNA present in them.
My Lords, in many ways, this is a sign of the times. Cheap food means that manufacturers are constantly chasing their bottom line. There is also a surplus of horsemeat on the market because people cannot afford to keep horses. Can we not somehow resolve this problem by putting horsemeat into pet, as opposed to human, food? Can he corroborate or deny a statement made today in the Daily Telegraph that we imported 9,000 tonnes of Mexican horsemeat into this country, and what are its safety implications?
My Lords, what is important is that consumers know what they are buying and that labelling is done properly and honestly. Retailers are responsible for both the safety and the correct labelling of the products that they are selling, which is why government work with industry to maintain confidence in the food chain. All systems of standards and quality control depend to some extent on a certain amount of self-regulation and due diligence. While the Government have a role in checking and monitoring industry, particularly where there are public health issues, non-regulatory approaches and agreements can be just as effective and achieved faster than legislation. This can be seen in our approach over recent days, where the Government and industry have come together with the joint aim of maintaining consumer confidence in the food chain.
My Lords, in a city where you can get an extraordinary variety of meats such as crocodile, kangaroo and ostrich-not to mention snails, fish lips and other exotics-does my noble friend not feel that all this fuss about eating a bit of horse is seriously contaminated with bull?
My Lords, I am not sure how to answer that, save to say that I, like my noble friend, enjoy a good variety in my diet.