Confusion and a lack of clarity marred the government’s response to the horsemeat scandal, say MPs who conducted an inquiry into the fiasco.

Millions of meat products were withdrawn from supermarket shelves earlier this year after they were discovered to contain horsemeat rather than beef.

The government’s response to the scandal has since been scrutinised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which published its findings on Tuesday (16 July).

It highlights a lack of clarity about the role of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in responding to the contamination of beef products.

Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, who chairs the committee said: “The committee agrees that ministers must be responsible for policy, but there was confusion about where responsibility lay for responding to the horsemeat discovery.

“We urge the government to reconsider the machinery of government changes it made in 2010 and make the FSA one step removed from the government departments it reports to.”

Those responsible for the horsemeat scandal must be identified and prosecuted in order to restore consumer confidence in the UK’s frozen meat sector, according to the MPs.

The committee also expresses concern that no prosecutions have yet been brought, despite clear evidence of organised fraud in the meat supply chain.

“Consumers need to know that what they buy is what the label says it is.”
Anne McIntosh, Conservative MP

“The evidence suggests a complex network of companies trading in and mislabelling beef or beef products which is fraudulent and illegal,” said Ms Mcintosh.

“We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and seek assurances that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or illegality.”

“Although the fraud proved not as extensive as originally feared, it has reduced consumer confidence in frozen and processed meats, such as frozen burgers.”

Although few samples eventually proved negative, the worst example found more than a quarter of a supermarket burger was horse instead of beef.

“Retailers and meat processors should be more vigilant against the risk of deliberate adulteration,” said Ms McIntosh.

“Regular and detailed DNA tests are needed on all meat or meat-based ingredients which form part of a processed or frozen meat product.

“Consumers need to know that what they buy is what the label says it is.”

The committee was also surprised by the comparatively large number of horse carcasses from the UK which tested positive for the veterinary drug bute.

It argues that a newly introduced system for testing horses for bute before they are released to the food system must continue with government and industry sharing the cost.

The committee recommends a number of changes to the food regulation system in the UK.

Recommendations include making the FSA a more effective regulator of industry and be given powers to compel industry to carry out food testing when needed.

Large retailers must carry out regular DNA testing of meat ingredients for frozen and processed meat products, with the costs borne by industry and not consumers, says the report.

All test results should be submitted to the FSA and a summary published on the retailers’ website, says the document.

The present system for issuing horse passports must change and a single national database be established in all EU member states, it adds.

FSA powers

The report says the FSA should have powers to ensure all local authorities carry out some food sampling each year.

Local authorities should adopt targeted sampling-testing from time to time products which might be contaminated without requiring intelligence to support it, it says.

At the same time, the government should ensure there are sufficient, properly trained public analysts in the UK

There should also be better communication about the role of the FSA so that there is no uncertainty in future about who is responsible for responding to similar incidents;

Finally, the FSA should ensure channels of communication with devolved administrations and its EU counter parts are open and encourage sharing of information.

“The FSA must become a more efficient and effective regulator and be seen to be independent of industry,” said Ms McIntosh.

“It must have the power to be able to compel industry to carry out tests when needed.

“It must also be more innovative in its testing regime and vigilant in ensuring every local authority carries out regular food sampling.”

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