Horsemeat crisis caught government ‘flat-footed’

The UK’s ability to respond to the horsemeat crisis has been undermined by a lack of clarity over the role of the Food Standards Agency, according to MPs.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee said moving responsibility for nutrition policy and labelling away from the FSA to the Department of Health in 2010 had given the agency a “diminished role”.

This meant the current contamination crisis had caught the FSA and government flat-footed and unable to respond effectively.

In a report, published on Thursday (14 February), MPs called for the FSA to be given statutory powers to force food suppliers to undertake DNA tests to show their products comply with food standards regulations.

All testing results must also be reported to the FSA, whether the tests had been ordered by the agency or carried out independently, it added.

While so far it is believed there has been no risk to human health, it was “improbable” that individuals prepared to pass off horsemeat as beef illegally were applying the required hygiene standards, said MPs.

This suggested the authorities should also undertake a broader spectrum of tests to see if there are any other substances that could be harmful to human health.

Anne McIntosh MP, committee chairman, said the scale of contamination emerging in the meat supply chain was breathtaking.

“Restoring customer confidence will take time and money,” she said.

“The government has a role to secure the correct balance between affordable food prices and effective regulations that require transparency and quality.

“The consumer cannot be left to face a catch 22 where they can either pay for food that complies with the highest standards of traceability, labelling and testing or accept that they cannot trust the provenance and composition of the foods they eat.”

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