Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 141

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 14 May 2013

Members present:

Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)

George Eustice

Barry Gardiner

Mrs Mary Glindon

Sheryll Murray

Neil Parish

Ms Margaret Ritchie


Examination of Witness

Witness: James Fairbairn, Former Commercial Director, Freeza Meats, gave evidence.

Q311 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome, Mr Fairbairn. Thank you very much indeed for being with us this afternoon and for contributing to our inquiry into food contamination. Just for the record, could you give your name and position?

James Fairbairn: It is James Fairbairn. I was Commercial Director of Freeza Meats; I am very recently retired.

Q312 Chair: We are very grateful to you for being with us. I understand that you took some meat into storage for a business partner. If I could just ask you a general question at the beginning: would Freeza Foods, as a company, normally make a habit of storing meat for other business partners?

James Fairbairn: No, and "partner" would not be an appropriate word. He was a trader, certainly known to us. We would have dealt with him pretty infrequently in the past, but he had a particular problem that weekend, approaching 18 August, when a parcel had been refused by Silvercrest Foods. He had a problem getting it into store for the weekend, and rang up and asked if we would store it for him on a very temporary basis.

Q313 Chair: How would you describe your relationship with the firm in question, which I understand was McAdam? How would you describe your relationship, if they were not a business partner?

James Fairbairn: There would not be a relationship, per se. He is a well­known meat trader who has been in the business for years. There are lots of meat dealers, both in Ireland and the UK, and possibly Europe. They can be quite useful at times, but it would be more rare that we would use a trader than not.

Q314 Chair: It is not something that you would normally do?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q315 Chair: Will you assess the risks in storing meat that was not intended for your company’s use?

James Fairbairn: We would not see a risk in the storage of it, especially since it was indicated to us that it was going to be very short-term.

Q316 Chair: How short-term?

James Fairbairn: He indicated a week, possibly.

Q317 Chair: Did you have a discussion as to what the insurance aspects might be, or any labelling aspects?

James Fairbairn: No, that would not have come into it.

Q318 Chair: Did you discuss the fact that there might be cross­contamination, or any involvement with your own products?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q319 Chair: Is this the first time you have done that for McAdam?

James Fairbairn: Yes.

Q320 Chair: Did McAdam say why they were unable to store the consignment of meat themselves?

James Fairbairn: McAdam rang us to see if we would temporarily store a consignment of beef for him.

Q321 Chair: And you did not think this was an odd request?

James Fairbairn: Oh, no.

Chair: But you would not normally do this.

James Fairbairn: No. The guy was stuck. It was approaching the weekend, and the guy was stuck. There are not that many cold stores about the place that would operate and take it in like that.

Q322 Chair: Did they tell you why they were unable to store the meat themselves?

James Fairbairn: He does not have a cold store.

Q323 Chair: So where would they normally store their meat?

James Fairbairn: Normally what traders do is that they essentially operate on the phone, in an office. They will secure a load of beef from any source in Europe, and ask for it to be delivered to any destination in Europe.

Q324 Chair: As a company, have Freeza Meats sourced their meat from Poland?

James Fairbairn: No. Not knowingly, no.

Q325 Chair: So on this occasion, where did the meat come from that McAdam stored?

James Fairbairn: It turned out that it came from Poland, but we did not know that until it arrived in.

Q326 Chair: So when it arrived in, how was it labelled?

James Fairbairn: Apparently there were Polish labels on it.

Q327 Chair: "Apparently there were Polish labels"-did your people check the labels?

James Fairbairn: The first thing we do is to check that every consignment of beef has an EU approval number on the label, sealing the top to the bottom of the box. We do have Polish workers in the factory, who were able to tell us, "Yes, that is from Poland".

Q328 Chair: Did it look like beef to your workers?

James Fairbairn: Our first observations were that, first of all, it was very badly wrapped. The wrappers were torn. It was very extensively freezer-burned, and some of the beef was exposed, sitting on splintered, dirty, wooden pallets.

Q329 Chair: So did this not raise issues of hygiene to you?

James Fairbairn: It raised issues with us, in that we wrapped it solidly with cling wrap and isolated it in the factory, and name-plated it with, "For Storage Only: Do Not Touch." McAdam was phoned immediately as to the condition of the consignment, repeating exactly what I have just said about the state and nature of it. He was a bit surprised at that. He said "Hold on. If you can hang on to it, I will get on to the supplier of it in Poland", or wherever it was, and he was going to seek a credit note for it.

Q330 Chair: So who was the supplier that supplied the meat?

James Fairbairn: We do not know who it was.

Q331 Chair: You must know which truck brought it in.

James Fairbairn: Yes, but he wanted it for storage. It comes in to us frozen. There is no way we would use it. We isolated it and did the necessary to make sure that there was no way it was going to interfere with our own stock in the cold store. It was a simple case of putting it aside and waiting for him to come and collect it.

Q332 Chair: Did he say where the meat was going to?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q333 Chair: When were they meant to collect it?

James Fairbairn: He indicated in the first instance, prior to it coming into the factory, that he would hope to get it out within a week.

Q334 Chair: How long was it there for?

James Fairbairn: What happened then is that the local environmental health officer came down in early September. She saw the consignment. She said, "What is that?" and we said, "It is product that we are storing on behalf of this guy, McAdam". She looked at it, and she said, "There is no way that is going into the food chain". We said, "It certainly would not go into our food chain." So she said, "It is not to move without our approval".

Q335 Chair: How long had the consignment been with you at that time?

James Fairbairn: It had been approximately a fortnight.

Q336 Chair: You were told that the consignment was coming for a week, so why did you not say you wanted rid of it?

James Fairbairn: Because, when we saw the state of it, we informed McAdam immediately on the day it arrived that we did not want to hold it longer than was possible. He said, "Hold on until I get a credit note for it".

Q337 Chair: Who was he going to get the credit note from? Did he tell you?

James Fairbairn: He was going to get it from whoever supplied the meat to him.

Q338 Chair: You must have asked what the reason for the delay was, and why you had it for two weeks.

James Fairbairn: What he had to do was to contact the supplier in the first instance and tell them the state of the beef. That supplier may or may not have had the opportunity to come and examine the product for themselves.

Q339 Chair: Who was the supplier? You must have been told to expect a call from that supplier, who was going to come to check the meat.

James Fairbairn: No. It was absolutely nothing to do with us, except we were storing it. We wanted shot of it.

Q340 Chair: So you just let any Tom, Dick and Harry come into your storage?

James Fairbairn: No, absolutely not. No.

Q341 Chair: So McAdam must have told you who to expect the call from.

James Fairbairn: We would expect a call from McAdam, to say he had a truck coming in to lift it.

Q342 Ms Ritchie: First, I welcome you, Mr Fairbairn, as a constituent from Rostrevor and South Down. Could you talk us through your normal supply chain, with particular reference, obviously, to where you get your meat from, and also in relation to issues to do with traceability?

James Fairbairn: In general, we would use probably up to 65% of our raw meat material from the British Isles and Ireland. We would, on occasion, move into Europe: Holland, France, Spain, et cetera, when opportunities arose for consignments from there.

Q343 Chair: Can we just hang on? I am sorry to interrupt, but you have just said you had Polish workers, who were used to reading labels in Polish.

James Fairbairn: A label came in with Polish writing on it. None of the indigenous people working in the factory understand Polish, so we asked them, "Where did this label originate?"

Q344 Chair: How often would you get consignments with a Polish label?

James Fairbairn: That is the only one I am aware of. It was a totally isolated case.

Q345 Ms Ritchie: Mr Fairbairn, if you take the last year or two years, where would your supply chain have predominantly come from? Would it have been from Ireland? Would it have been from the UK, or from wider afield?

James Fairbairn: It would be Ireland, first, North and South.

Q346 Ms Ritchie: And what would have been the percentage there?

James Fairbairn: The percentage would be 40%.

Q347 Ms Ritchie: Then where would the 60% have come from?

James Fairbairn: It would have come from the North and England, and the rest from Europe.

Q348 Ms Ritchie: How much would have come from Europe?

James Fairbairn: Probably about 15% or 20%.

Q349 Ms Ritchie: From what countries in mainland Europe would it have come?

James Fairbairn: Holland, France and Spain.

Q350 Ms Ritchie: ABP Food have suggested that supply chains in the meat industry are too long. What is your view of that?

James Fairbairn: I do not know. Is it distance they are talking about, or time?

Chair: They are talking about the number of suppliers.

Ms Ritchie: Yes, the number of suppliers, and it then goes back to the issue of traceability.

James Fairbairn: Certainly no one can be restricted in the number of suppliers that they have. It is important for a stand-alone company like ourselves, who are totally independent, to go out and source as much product as we can get our hands on. As time goes on, it is getting more and more difficult to get. The desinewed issue, for instance, has taken about 60,000 tonnes out of the market here.

Q351 Chair: So were you possibly aware of the fact that there was a potential gap in the market, with desinewed meat coming out of the market, and perhaps people trying to fill in with cheaper cuts of meat?

James Fairbairn: Certainly, one would have to pursue the cheapest possible product one can get, in view of the price movement in the raw material that we use, which is the forequarter of the animal. The price of that, I can say, has doubled in the past two and a half years, driven to a degree by the desinewed issue, but probably more so by the weak economy over here. People are buying huge amounts of mincemeat, more than before, because it is the most versatile, cheapest meat product you can get.

Q352 Ms Ritchie: Mr Fairbairn, how do you verify the assurances of your suppliers?

James Fairbairn: Mostly in the British Isles and Ireland context, where our consistent suppliers are located, we would carry out audits in the factory. They would be sent a questionnaire, followed up by an audit, et cetera. In the European context, EU approval is critical for everyone-the questionnaire and EU approval is probably the primary criterion we look for.

Q353 Ms Ritchie: As a further supplementary, who are your suppliers in the Republic of Ireland, in Northern Ireland, and here in the UK?

James Fairbairn: They are basically the principal meat abattoir deboning producers: the ABP group, Dawn Meats, Kepak, and Liffey Meats. In the North, we have WD Meats in Coleraine, Omagh Meats, and ABP in Lurgan. There are probably a few more, which I cannot recall. In England, there are the ABP group, Vestey, and Newby, when they were active.

Q354 Barry Gardiner: Mr Fairbairn, can I just ask you about the visit from the EHO in September? That was when you first discovered that this was actually equine and not beef, is that correct?

James Fairbairn: Do you mind me asking you where that information came from? Chair: It is a question.

Barry Gardiner: It is a question.

James Fairbairn: Oh, sorry. No, the visit in September by the EHO-

Barry Gardiner: You told us that there had been a visit in September from the EHO.

James Fairbairn: Oh, yes. There was a visit in September, yes; sorry.

Barry Gardiner: I am just asking whether that was the first time that you discovered that it was horse and not beef.

James Fairbairn: Do you want the full profile of the consignment?

Barry Gardiner: It is just a simple question.

James Fairbairn: The EHO came in September, saw the beef consignment in the condition I reported earlier, and she said, "That is not going into the food chain", for the simple reason that it was unfit-freezer burn, dirty pallets, and torn packaging. That was it. It was detained by the EHO and could not move. It was nothing to do with equine at that point, in September.

Q355 Barry Gardiner: Right. So you did not know in September that this was equine at all, and neither did the EHO, according to you?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q356 Barry Gardiner: When the Chair said, "Was this an odd request to store the consignment of meat?" you said, "Oh, no; the guy was stuck." Who was it that had rejected the meat?

James Fairbairn: Silvercrest Foods.

Q357 Barry Gardiner: Why then, Mr Fairbairn, in your statement, do you say that it was you who was approached by the meat trader, McAdam Food Service, to purchase a parcel of raw meat, which you declined, and not anybody else?

James Fairbairn: Purchase did not come into the equation.

Q358 Barry Gardiner: I am sorry; I am quoting from your own statement. You, Freeza Meats, said on 5 February, "In August 2012, we were approached by the meat trader McAdam Food Services in County Monaghan, Republic of Ireland, to purchase a parcel of raw material, which we declined. Martin McAdam subsequently asked us to hold his product in storage, which we did in good will in a separated area of the storage facility." So it was you who was actually approached to purchase this, and you declined it, according to that statement. Yet you have told the Committee today that actually, it was somebody else who declined the package. Which was it?

James Fairbairn: I do not recall actually making that statement.

Q359 Barry Gardiner: Is that right? It is a statement that Freeza Meats released on 5 February.

James Fairbairn: Hold on; Freeza Meats may have released that, but it was not me who released it. What has possibly happened there is that when McAdam first of all rang in a panic for the storage, he probably quipped and said, "And if you have a look at it and you think it is useable, you might buy it."

Barry Gardiner: It does not sound like a quip, really, does it? "In August 2012, we were approached by the meat trader McAdam Food Services to purchase a parcel of raw material, which we declined." It does not say anything there about "which had already been rejected by Silvercrest", or anything else. You cannot explain that?

Q360 Chair: Can I just ask what the source of your information is? Who told you-how did you find out-that Silvercrest had rejected the consignment?

James Fairbairn: I heard that in the currency of activity in the factory.

Q361 Barry Gardiner: Oh, right. So you can tell us for sure that it was actually Silvercrest that rejected this?

James Fairbairn: They refused, yes, and McAdam told us it was refused by Silvercrest.

Q362 Barry Gardiner: Do you know on what basis Silvercrest rejected it?

James Fairbairn: When we hear "rejection", what immediately comes to mind is it is probably a visual lean (VL) outofspecification situation.

Q363 Barry Gardiner: Out of spec, yes, indeed. Now, you said the guy was stuck, and you were doing him a favour, right?

Chair: Freeza Meats said that.

Barry Gardiner: No. Mr Fairbairn said the guy was stuck, and you were doing him a favour. Freeza Meats in their statement said, "In good will, we held it in storage". That sounds rather a generous move on your part for somebody who you told the Committee earlier this afternoon you had dealt with only infrequently in the past.

James Fairbairn: The guy wanted to get the stuff placed in a store, lest it be left to thaw out over the weekend.

Q364 Barry Gardiner: McAdam Food say-and this is their written evidence-that McAdam Food Products had no awareness or knowledge whatsoever of any possibility of there being equine content. "Any such products are bought and imported on the basis of their being ordered, paid for, documented and labelled." The words that strike me, out of that, Mr Fairbairn, are "paid for". So if they were paid for, then according to you they were paid for by Silvercrest already. In which case, why was it that McAdam was coming to you to store them? Why were Silvercrest not coming to you to store them? If it was you that rejected them, presumably when they were ordered, according to Mr McAdam, they were already paid for by Freeza Meats. So which is it?

James Fairbairn: That is pure conclusion from you.

Barry Gardiner: No. It is actually Mr McAdam that has written it in his evidence to the Committee.

James Fairbairn: I am giving you my evidence as to what I know that happened. McAdam asked us to store it for not more than a week. A week passed, and he wanted to get a credit note. This is what we were told. He was having problems getting a credit note, and asked whether we could hold on to it for another week or so, until he got his credit note. Two weeks then into September, the EHO comes along. She puts the clangers on it, and it is detained. It now falls into the remit of-and its ultimate destination is controlled by-the environmental health officer. That is what we were told.

Q365 Barry Gardiner: Mr Fairbairn, I am telling you what we have been told, and we have been told by McAdam Food that they do not actually import anything unless it is already paid for. That is here in black and white. You may have read it in the evidence to the Committee. Is he lying? That is what I am asking you. Is McAdam lying?

James Fairbairn: It is totally contrary to the story he told us, yes.

Q366 Barry Gardiner: So he has either lied to you, or he has lied to this Committee. Is that right?

James Fairbairn: That is correct.

Q367 Barry Gardiner: In your view, he has lied?

James Fairbairn: Absolutely.

Q368 Barry Gardiner: Because he does not ensure that payment is received before he imports it in the first place, whether it is from Silvercrest or from Freeza Meats.

James Fairbairn: I do not know what he said in his statement. It is totally irrelevant to what I have told you, which is the absolute truth.

Q369 Chair: Could you just explain something to the Committee? You just said, in answer to a question, that you heard where the meat had been rejected from, and I quote, "in the currency of activity in the factory." So is this chit-chat on the factory floor, or is it from the factory manager? Could you just tell us what you mean by "in the currency of activity in the factory"?

James Fairbairn: If I can give you a parallel to it, we would have guys ringing us on the doorstep of Christmas, wanting us to store an excess load of turkeys that they had in.

Chair: But this was not Christmas, and this was not turkeys.

James Fairbairn: We would do that for some local guy. Here was a guy who rang up, who was in trouble getting the product into cold store. There are not that many cold stores available coming up towards the weekend who would take in product. We took the product in. It was frozen, and it was in a bad old state. We double­wrapped it, corralled it, and made sure it did not interfere at all with the current raw material stock that we had in that store.

Q370 Barry Gardiner: Mr Fairbairn, McAdam have also written in their evidence to this Committee that-as you said, quite correctly-"We do not store or process meat products, and our orders of products are dispatched directly to our customers from source". Now, at that point-and I am taking what you have told the Committee here-they had gone to Silvercrest. It had been dispatched directly to Silvercrest. Silvercrest were therefore responsible for that product at that time, were they not?

James Fairbairn: They were only responsible until they cleared the intake of it. Most likely, in a rejection process like that, it is not a question of opening the back door of a truck, and looking in. The product would have to be offloaded and assessed by Silvercrest Foods as to their determination of whether it was in or out of spec. This particular case had to be out of spec, back on the truck and taken away. That is how it works.

Q371 Barry Gardiner: You say that you do not deal with ABP. Is that right?

James Fairbairn: We do deal with them, yes.

Q372 Barry Gardiner: Oh, you do? All right. It is probably just as well that you do, because there is a factory that they have got just over the back of you in Newry, is there not? You are a close neighbour, are you not?

James Fairbairn: It is very close at hand.

Q373 Barry Gardiner: Do you deal directly with ABP’s factory in Newry?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q374 Barry Gardiner: So you deal with ABP, but not with the one that is right next door to you?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q375 Barry Gardiner: Which ones do you deal with, Mr Fairbairn?

James Fairbairn: One in Lurgan, one in Cahir, in the South of Ireland, one in Bandon, and in Tipperary. There are quite a number of factories.

Q376 Barry Gardiner: Right, so you actually deal quite a bit with ABP?

James Fairbairn: Yes, when the opportunity arises.

Q377 Barry Gardiner: And Mr McAdam used to deal quite a bit with ABP as well, did he not?

James Fairbairn: Probably.

Barry Gardiner: Probably?

James Fairbairn: Yes. He is a meat trader. He trades in meat.

Q378 Barry Gardiner: So it is more than probable, is it not?

James Fairbairn: Yes, of course.

Q379 Barry Gardiner: And you will remember the days when he did quite a lot of business, back in the 1980s and 1990s, with ABP and Mr Goodman.

James Fairbairn: I am not familiar with that.

Barry Gardiner: You are not familiar with that?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q380 Barry Gardiner: I would have thought your role at that time, with the whole of the Beef Tribunal, would have meant that those events were very familiar to your memory.

James Fairbairn: Not at all.

Barry Gardiner: Not at all?

James Fairbairn: Not at all. I worked in the international division of Goodman International, which was wholly and exclusively tied up in the export of beef products to destinations outside the EU.

Q381 Barry Gardiner: Yes, but the judge found that you were the person responsible for the cover-up at the ABP factory with Eamon Mackle, did he not?

James Fairbairn: If you are bringing issues up like this, which is not relevant, I will have to decline-

Barry Gardiner: I was not intending to, until you said that you did not know anything about this guy being involved with ABP.

James Fairbairn: I will have to decline in dealing with that, because it is not why I came here.

Q382 Neil Parish: Thank you very much, Mr Fairbairn, for coming to give us evidence. I want to talk now a bit about the principle of the food chain. ABP Foods have suggested that the supply chain in the meat industry is too long. What is your view?

James Fairbairn: I do not understand why they found it too long.

Q383 Neil Parish: I suppose the public have become very distrustful of the situation, because meat transfers from various countries. One minute it is beef, the next minute it appears to be horsemeat, and so therefore I suppose the public could well say that if the food chain was a lot shorter, there is less chance of that being changed from one to the other. I realise it is fraud when it has been done, but I think that is the logic behind it.

James Fairbairn: I suppose, in that context, they are probably right, but that is forced upon the industry because of the diminishing supplies of cattle, and especially the raw material that we as a burger plant-and the minced meat people and the pie people, and in some degree the sausage people-need. They have a problem getting supplies at a reasonable price, so you have to extend your market for sourcing.

Q384 Neil Parish: Perhaps I am leading you slightly now, but would you argue that there is huge pressure put on the meat industry by some of the large retailers to actually access very reasonably priced product?

James Fairbairn: Yes, the retailers have a very dominant role, but one would be foolhardy to engage with the retailers if they weren’t certain that they could source the product at the right price to meet the price they quoted that would satisfy the retailer.

Neil Parish: So when you are processing meat, or-

Chair: I do not want to encroach on Sheryll Murray’s question.

Q385 Sheryll Murray: Thank you very much, Mr Fairbairn. When meat processors determine where they source their ingredients, is it solely price that they base their decision on, or are you given instructions from companies to decide where you are going to source the produce from-quality, or other factors?

James Fairbairn: The product we use is forequarter meat, and we would use it and buy it in essentially degrees of VL, which is fat content. A 70-VL product means it is 70% lean and 30% fat. 80 VL means 20% fat, 80% lean, and up to the nineties. That is what we would order. We know what price we have to pay for it, or want to pay for it, and if we see it low, we would get it in and examine it. If it is what it says on the label, in fact, we buy it.

Q386 Sheryll Murray: So what you are basically saying to me is it is not solely price. It is actually the quality as well.

James Fairbairn: Oh, yes. If we order something at 80 VL or 90 VL and it comes in, our guys examine it, and it is 75, it goes back or there is a discount on it.

Q387 Sheryll Murray: What input do the retailers have in this process?

James Fairbairn: We have only engaged with one major retailer these past two years, and they will nominate source deboning facilities where we must buy our product for them from. That is purely because they have carried out their own supermarket audit on that source, as a credible source.

Q388 Mrs Glindon: What lessons do you think have been learned in the meat-processing industry from this incident?

James Fairbairn: I think, from our point of view, the lesson has been, "Don’t do favours for anyone". That is the lesson. As regards the equine issue, this has been a fraud perpetrated by a big organisation somewhere-a big one. I suspect it may have been going on for a long time, because the results that have been coming through since the start on the burger front have been around 1%. For cooked product, they are now going up to 38% or 40%. It almost looks as though the equine stuff is directed selectively between burger plants and cooking plants. Anyway, that is my own personal opinion on it, but it is a unique scenario.

Q389 Mrs Glindon: In light of that serious view, how will food business operators such as yours alter your approach to ensure the integrity of your supply chain in the future?

James Fairbairn: It is unclear at the moment. Certainly, I know that the Commission are going to bring out a directive very shortly as to what they see as the best controls to operate. As regards ourselves, who are an end user in beef, I imagine the controls are going to be centred on the deboning halls and the butchery halls, where they will carry out species tests to confirm that what is in the box is bovine.

Q390 Mrs Glindon: There is nothing you think that your business can proactively do?

James Fairbairn: I do not think so, no. I imagine that every consignment of beef that we take in in the future will have to have clearance on a species test. That will be it, really.

Q391 Neil Parish: Mr Fairbairn, I would like to follow up on my last question about the large retailers. Now, if you take the largest retailer in this country, Tesco, they have now said that they want to source all their beef and meat products from the British Isles. Now, the British Isles means the Republic of Ireland as well. How confident would you be that the integrity of the food chain will be able to differentiate between beef from the Republic and beef from elsewhere in Ireland that will then go into the Tesco food chain? If the meat industry has been able to supplement horsemeat for beef, how traceable will the system be through the Republic and through the UK, to be sure that that beef is actually either British or from the Republic of Ireland?

James Fairbairn: I go back to what the previous speaker said-there will be controls applied to these deboning halls that will be carrying out species clearance certificates, basically, with each load.

Q392 Neil Parish: That is species clearance, but the question I am asking you is not species clearance, is it? In the future, we want to know about the integrity of the food chain, to make sure the beef is from Britain or from the Republic of Ireland. How confident are you that a major retailer can get to that position, whereas before-in the recent past-we have had horsemeat put in place of beef? I suppose you could DNAtest beef that comes from, say, Brazil or Argentina for beef that comes from the Republic of Ireland or Britain, but it would be difficult, I imagine. How would you test for that?

James Fairbairn: I do not know, short of putting armed guards or something on each of these installations. I honestly do not know the answer to that one. If it is doable, it will be done, as you can see from this equine issue.

Q393 Barry Gardiner: Mr Fairbairn, you and I are agreed on one thing, and that is that when the Food Standards Agency of Ireland came before this Committee, Mr Reilly, I think, told us that he thought that this was a one-off. It was like winning the lotto, he said, that they had got this one beefburger that happened to have gone astray. You have said-in my view, quite correctly-that this was a fraud perpetrated by a big organisation and for a long period of time. Can I just ask you-you have worked in the meat industry for a very long time, and you know its ways-how would one do it? How would one go about it? Would it involve mislabelling and swapping of labels? Would that be part of how one would go about doing this? Would it involve double bookkeeping? What are the tools of the trade that somebody might use to do this?

James Fairbairn: On the physical side, I have never worked on the butchery floor.

Barry Gardiner: No, but you know the industry.

James Fairbairn: I would say that it is quite obvious from the results that you will not get a full box of equine. What you will get, maybe, is half a box of bovine and half a box of equine.

Barry Gardiner: Yours was 80%.

James Fairbairn: Yes. The effect of that, where you have a very low VL amount of bovine and an amount of horsemeat-especially from horses that are very thin, and have been slaughtered because people cannot feed them-with a minimal fat content, is that it would up the average VL in that box. That is the only motive, because 1% would not be enough for any gangster.

Q394 Barry Gardiner: So if you were going to do it, you would have to swap the labels, would you not?

James Fairbairn: I think it was a mix.

Q395 Barry Gardiner: Would it be sensible to try to falsify the country of origin and pretend that it had come from outside the country?

James Fairbairn: Anything is possible. These EU labels are issued, as far as I remember, by the veterinary office. In the factory-in the deboning hall-a number is catalogued for every box that is used up.

Q396 Barry Gardiner: So somebody there would have to be implicated. You talked about a fraud perpetrated by a big organisation over a long period of time: that means the veterinary office would have to be implicated in this.

James Fairbairn: Going back to my last days in the Goodman organisation, when that was put in force, a tamper-proof label with a serial number at the bottom was issued by the veterinary office at the factory.

Q397 Barry Gardiner: Do you know a company called Eurostock Foods Northern Ireland?

James Fairbairn: I do, yes.

Q398 Barry Gardiner: Do you know where they are located?

James Fairbairn: They are in Lurgan.

Q399 Barry Gardiner: Are they not at Unit 10 on the Green Bank Industrial Estate, just next to you?

James Fairbairn: Well, they were. That was their old address, but they relocated two years ago.

Q400 Barry Gardiner: So they are no longer there?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q401 Barry Gardiner: Did you have any dealings with Eurostock Foods Northern Ireland when they were there?

James Fairbairn: We did, when we ran out of packaging, tape, or labels.

Barry Gardiner: You ran out of labels?

James Fairbairn: They were basically from here to the statue of the horse out there.

Barry Gardiner: Thank you.

Q402 Ms Ritchie: Mr Fairbairn, I suppose that you understand better than the rest of us that the agri-food industry is the bedrock of the economy on the island, both North and South.

James Fairbairn: Absolutely.

Ms Ritchie: So how do you think, having worked in the industry for many, many years, the contamination of the bovine by horsemeat took place?

James Fairbairn: How it took place? I could not conceive in a million years that it happened in the British Isles. I could not conceive of it. Apparently there is 60,000 tonnes of horsemeat created every year, and probably rising, and that seems to be predominantly in Europe. So one can only conclude European origin.

Q403 Chair: Just before we let you go, you said that it was probably a fraud perpetrated by a large organisation somewhere.

James Fairbairn: That is my personal opinion, yes.

Chair: What we have read, and what we have heard, and what the newspapers report, is that perhaps all roads lead to Ireland.

James Fairbairn: No.

Chair: You would absolutely, categorically-

James Fairbairn: Not at all.

Q404 Chair: Is there any particular reason why you could convince us that that is not the case?

James Fairbairn: The volumes required to make it worthwhile would not be in Ireland.

Q405 Chair: But we have established that there is a very large horse trade in Ireland.

James Fairbairn: That is the export of live horses.

Chair: Even just between Northern and Southern Ireland.

James Fairbairn: I would not be familiar with it, but that is my perception of the size of this, because of the apparent low return and high risk to get into it.

Q406 Chair: But I think you just established that it is a high return, because you have put on record this afternoon that you have lost the cheap production of desinewed meat. A lot of it was sourced from my constituency and Margaret Ritchie’s constituency. You have put on record this afternoon that that has driven up the price of the hindquarter, which is what you particularly specialise in.

James Fairbairn: No, we specialise in the forequarter.

Chair: Pardon me; the forequarter. You have given us two reasons as to why there would be a market there and why it would be easy to fill.

James Fairbairn: Yes, but honestly I could not conceive of anyone deliberately going out and using horsemeat. From my reading of your inquiries here, there has been a concentration of this in Europe. I honestly cannot believe that anyone in Ireland would touch that.

Q407 Barry Gardiner: I agree with all that you have said to Ms Ritchie about the importance of the trade to the Irish economy, but why do you think it was that the FSA Ireland used those tests that they knew were not going to be able to result in a prosecution?

James Fairbairn: I have got an opinion on that too.

Barry Gardiner: Good. Let me hear it.

James Fairbairn: I think there was a whistleblower involved.

Q408 Barry Gardiner: So there was a whistleblower in one of the factories?

James Fairbairn: I am talking about my opinion.

Barry Gardiner: Of course. You are here to give us your views, absolutely.

James Fairbairn: There has got to have been a whistleblower.

Q409 Barry Gardiner: But those DNA tests that they conducted were on very specific factories, were they not?

James Fairbairn: They headed straight for Silvercrest, and they equalised that by going next door to Liffey Meats.

Q410 Barry Gardiner: So you are confident that they were acting on clear tip-off information from a whistleblower?

James Fairbairn: I would be pretty certain.

Q411 Barry Gardiner: Because, of course, that goes against what we also heard from them. They said that this was not on the basis of any tip-off; this was just "winning the lotto", as he put it-the luck of the Irish.

James Fairbairn: I will not comment on what is in my head. Why did they not try for seagulls or something?

Q412 Chair: Can I just say, on behalf of the whole Committee, that we are immensely grateful to you for making the journey to be with us, and for giving us your views.

James Fairbairn: Could I actually make a statement to the Committee?

Chair: Of course.

James Fairbairn: I just want to go back to the simple train of events that happened. I have told you about the 18 August receipt of product. I have told you about the visit of the EHO, on around about 13 or 14 September.

Chair: That is a month.

James Fairbairn: At which point, she detained that product. Namely, the satellite office of the food standards people in Belfast detained it. They had ultimate say on where it went and what happened.

Q413 Barry Gardiner: How much did McAdam pay you to store the product?

James Fairbairn: We did not charge.

Q414 Barry Gardiner: You did not charge him?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q415 Barry Gardiner: That was very generous.

James Fairbairn: It was very generous, yes.

Barry Gardiner: For somebody that you have only worked with very occasionally in the distant past.

James Fairbairn: And we paid very dearly for it. So Mr McAdam was, as I said to you, told what the product was like on arrival of the product and examination of the product. He was to seek his credit note, and was delayed. The officer came down and detained the product. McAdam rang several times to have it released. My colleague was dealing with it. He rang the EHO, asking, "When can we release this?" and was told "You cannot release it. I will come back to you." We ended up getting the EHO McAdam’s number to let her talk to McAdam and to explain to McAdam that the product was detained. That product stayed in our cold store over a period incorporating 19 January, when the horse bolted from Silvercrest.

Q416 Barry Gardiner: It was being kept as a hostage, is what you are saying, is it not?

James Fairbairn: It was kept as a hostage. It should have been destroyed.

Q417 Barry Gardiner: Because they knew that it was equine.

James Fairbairn: Pardon? No.

Barry Gardiner: It was being kept as a hostage because they knew that it was equine.

James Fairbairn: In August or September they did not know that there was equine in that.

Q418 Barry Gardiner: They had already been tipped off, you think, by somebody at Silvercrest?

James Fairbairn: Not the environmental health guys in Belfast; not the FSA in Belfast-you are talking about a Dublin and South of Ireland context. There was no mention of equine at that stage; there was no mention of equine until 19 January.

Q419 Barry Gardiner: So why was it kept then?

James Fairbairn: It is not "Why was it kept?" The question is, "Why was it detained for five months?" Don’t ask me. After 19 January, when that blew on Goodman, we had inquiries from four major retailers. It was not a question of, "Can you start?" It was a question of, "When can you start supplying us with burgers?" There was the potential of £3 million or £4 million. Now, how do you think we felt when suddenly some of that consignment of McAdam’s was found to contain 80%?

Q420 Barry Gardiner: When product is rejected, as this one was by Silvercrest, as you have outlined to us, normally what would happen, presumably, is not that somebody would just store it in a freezer; they would take it for disposal.

James Fairbairn: That is correct.

Barry Gardiner: Or they would take it to re-badge, and try to dispose of it in another way.

James Fairbairn: It is either dog food or incineration, one of the two. They were the two decisions facing the FSA.

Q421 Barry Gardiner: So why stick it in a freezer? Why phone up somebody you have only known infrequently over a number of years and say, "Can you store this for us in your freezer?" Does that not imply to you that they were planning to maybe re­badge it and give it a different specification?

James Fairbairn: No. As I explained earlier on, traders rarely see the product they deal in. They deal on the phone.

Q422 Chair: I think, now, they will probably want to see the product. Can I just check what you told the Committee earlier? You told the Committee that you received the product on 18 August, and it was due to be there for one week. Now you just told us that actually it was still with you on 14 September, which is a month. So I cannot understand-and I do not think the Committee can understand-why you did not go back and ask them to remove it when it was only meant to be with you for a week.

James Fairbairn: That is correct. After we had advised them on 18 August or 19 August that the product was in the condition that it was in, he was obviously surprised, because his first reaction was, "Can you hang on to it until I get a credit note?"

Q423 Chair: It was that stage that you told McAdam the condition the product was in?

James Fairbairn: Oh, yes. We told him almost immediately, because had we not done that and a truck had arrived for it, we would have most likely been blamed for the condition of it, for the tear in the wrappers and the splinters in there.

Q424 Barry Gardiner: Why was it important that you kept it until he got the credit note?

James Fairbairn: Because where was he going to put it? Where was he going to place it? He indicated to us that it was really a matter of days before he would get the credit note, and that dragged on into a month.

Q425 Neil Parish: So this credit note was to come from the original company that he bought it from?

James Fairbairn: Yes.

Q426 Neil Parish: So he would need to prove the condition of that meat?

James Fairbairn: Yes, that is right.

Q427 Chair: Do we know which company that was?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q428 Chair: And you did not ask?

James Fairbairn: No.

Q429 Sheryll Murray: Can I just ask: how many times does this happen?

James Fairbairn: That was an absolute one-off.

Q430 Sheryll Murray: So you do not get regularly approached by people?

James Fairbairn: No. It was a total one­off.

Chair: Do you think that, now, you and your colleagues at Freeza Meats will have more regard to what products they are receiving into cold storage?

James Fairbairn: We certainly will, yes.

Chair: We are very grateful to you, Mr Fairbairn, for being with us.

James Fairbairn: Can I just continue on with my statement?

Chair: We are enjoying this, so if our guests succeeding you do not mind, we love having you before us.

James Fairbairn: I will be very quick, but for the life of me, I cannot understand how that product was left in that store for five months.

Chair: It was your store.

James Fairbairn: Let me finish. I cannot understand how the FSA in Belfast made their announcement on the website about the 80%, without some degree of thought as to what it would do to our company, or a scintilla of commercialism to ask us. We could have shot up to Belfast in 40 minutes, and we could have said, "Could you not word that differently-that we have it in store?" We had no attachment to that product at any stage of the five to six bloody months it was there, and if that had been portrayed as another load of McAdam beef found to be contaminated, stored in a cold store in County Down, then we might have avoided losing a contract worth £2.5 million, and 31 people would still be in the factory working; they are now on the dole. That is how we have suffered as a result of that, and I think the FSA in Belfast have behaved-I had better not use the word.

Chair: We will have the opportunity to pursue that, but we are very grateful to you, Mr Fairbairn. We thank you very much indeed for being with us, and you are very welcome to stay and hear the rest of the evidence, if you so wish. Thank you.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Catherine Brown, Chief Executive, Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Chair, Steve Wearne, (Interim) Director, Food Safety, and Andrew Rhodes, Director, Operations, Food Standards Agency, gave evidence.

Q431 Chair: Good afternoon, my Lord, ladies, and gentlemen. We are very grateful to you for being with us for a second time in the context of our further report on food contamination. Could I ask you to introduce yourselves and give your names and positions?

Steve Wearne: My name is Steve Wearne. I am Interim Director of Food Safety at the Food Standards Agency.

Andrew Rhodes: Andrew Rhodes, Director of Operations at the Food Standards Agency.

<?oasys [pc10p0] ?>Catherine Brown: Catherine Brown, Chief Executive at the Food Standards Agency. I am afraid I am still a bit deaf.

Lord Rooker: Jeff Rooker, Member of the other place and Chair of the Board of the Food Standards Agency.

Q432 Chair: You will have heard the evidence we have just heard, and I am sure the Committee will wish to pursue that. Can I just ask a couple of general questions, to begin with? When you last appeared before the Committee, I think, you did actually say that you would like to work very hard to improve your relations with other food agencies across Europe. How have we worked to improve that?

Catherine Brown: We continue to work very closely through all of the official channels that are in place to enable that to happen. So, clearly, we have been working with and through Europol. In terms of the cross-border issues in the island of Ireland, our team in Northern Ireland work closely. We have had multiple exchanges of information with the FSAI, of course, over the last few weeks, and of course all parties involved continue to use European reporting mechanisms as well, so it is an ongoing area of focus for us. I think one of the areas where we will want to really reflect in our lessons learned is what else we can do, and what we can do, as it were, between the heat of incidents like these to build relationships that work better for us when incidents do occur.

Q433 Chair: Can I just ask when you met your counterpart, the Chief Executive of the Irish FSA?

Catherine Brown: I have not actually met Professor Reilly yet. We are due to meet at a European Food Safety Agency (EFSA)-sponsored event fairly soon.

Q434 Chair: You did not think it was important, having told the Committee the last time you appeared that you wanted to work hard at improving relations, to meet the person who started?

Catherine Brown: No, I think it is very important. That is why I am going to Dublin at the earliest opportunity to do that. I think it is very important.

Q435 Chair: In your capability review-the first ever, I believe-it states at page 15 that the FSA needs to have a greater understanding of the challenges that local authorities currently face, and ensure that it has the capacity and capability to deal with an increasingly changing landscape. The FSA also needs to embed innovative thinking into everything it does, learning from others where it can. How have you worked at that?

Catherine Brown: Some of the people I have spent a bit of time with recently have been local authority people, both the LGA and individual local authorities, and localauthority­based labs. So there are a number of areas. Actually, that capability review also reflected that generally our reputation for dealing with incidents was pretty good, and of course, that’s one of the places where you need to liaise very closely. But also, at a more strategic level, our Board has recently reviewed our approach to the review of the delivery of official controls, and said that actually in the light of our capability review-in the light of our strategy-we wanted to take a more collaborative, more whole­system approach to that. That has been very much welcomed by the very large number of local authority people that I have talked to over the last couple of months.

So there is quite a lot of work ongoing, but already some good progress has been made. I have been to Wales and met with the Welsh local government people, so a lot of work has been done, in terms of relationships with local authorities. And certainly I think the introduction of the "bird table", for example, into the process of managing this incident is something that the LGA were welcoming yesterday, and saying it’s indicative of a desire to work with and understand local government, but also other people’s perspectives.

Lord Rooker: Can I just add to that from a strategic point of view? Since we last met, or since we were last in on 30 January, we have wound up the review of official controls, basically because we had got as far as we could with the research with both local government and other partners, and we took the view that we would be better off with a more partnership collaborative approach-as Catherine has just said-as far as local government is concerned. Because, to be honest, when the review started, over two years ago, there was a misunderstanding with local government. They thought we were coming along to take over, which we were not, but we have done enough research, and we can gain from the research that we have done.

We separated out animal feed from the review to start with, because that is where we have identified some food safety risks, so we have dealt with it quite separately. Even on that approach, on the animal feed, we changed direction some months ago. Andrew can give greater detail if need be, but we have got a different arrangement now with local government in the way we are trying to work. We recognise they are under enormous pressures. Some of the work is discretionary, some is statutory, and they are under enormous financial pressures. We want to encourage cross­boundary working. We want to get smarter and to get better value for money. We want to make sure there are no gaps, and therefore in some ways to try to change the approach. I think that came across from your session with the Local Government Association. It came across there that there was more of a collaborative partnership approach, and we have done that quite deliberately as a Board. It was nothing to do with this-it has happened during this incident, which of course is still ongoing-but it was building up to that towards the latter end of last year.

Q436 Chair: Thank you. Could you tell the Committee how many investigations are currently ongoing, and when you expect them to conclude?

Catherine Brown: Just those relating to this group of incidents?

Chair: Yes, on food contamination.

Catherine Brown: Obviously, we cannot talk about live investigations. A lot of the investigations relate to each other, so I do not even know how you would count them. You could count them all as one, or you could count them as groups of cases, so I would not put a number on the investigations, but they are live and ongoing.

Q437 Chair: Could you clarify one point on prosecutions? In your annual report and consolidated accounts for 2011-12, you refer to prosecutions taken by the relevant enforcement authority. You then go on to say that 17 cases were brought before the courts by the FSA, Defra, or procurators fiscal, but within that you are saying that 174 faced individual charges. So when convictions were secured in 14 of the cases, is that 14 of the 17 cases brought, or 14 of the 174?

Lord Rooker: Could I ask for the reference? What page number are you on?

Chair: I am on page 19. Page 18 sets out the scale of the prosecution, and 19 sets out the number. It would help us to know whether the conviction rate is high, if it was 14 out of the 17 cases brought, or low, if it was 14 out of 174 individually charged.

Catherine Brown: Andrew thinks it is a high conviction rate. Can we come back and confirm?

Chair: Could you clarify that in writing? So the reference is page 19, and it is a question of whether the 17 cases brought resulted in 14 convictions secured, or it was the 174 individuals charged.

Catherine Brown: We will come back and clarify that.1 The other thing, possibly, to clarify there is that looks to me to be cases that we took. Because, of course, the other thing to bear in mind is that local authorities take a significant number of cases. So, from our Local Authority Enforcement Monitoring System (LAEMS) return for 2011-12, we can see that there were 413 prosecutions taken by local authorities, of which 66 were for food offences. I do not actually have with me the conviction rate, but we will put that in with a note.

Chair: That would be very helpful indeed.

Lord Rooker: It does say, of course, that these were brought by Defra and the procurators fiscal, not just the FSA.

Chair: Yes. It would just help us to know.

Q438 Ms Ritchie: Are you confident that after the extensive testing of beef products in the UK, all contaminated beef products have been identified and removed from the market?

Catherine Brown: We are still in the process of going through every cold store and looking at what is in every cold store. Although we required the industry to test every product line, of course they will not have tested every batch of every product line, so I think that it is still possible that other cases will emerge. However, we have done a very well based statistical survey, which shows that the incident rate at that point was less than 1%. The fact that the latest tranche-the 150 cases that we did for the European survey, which again were well­grounded in terms of being a statistically representative survey-came back with no positives over the 1% is reassuring.

Q439 Ms Ritchie: How long do you estimate that it will take you? I suppose that is like a piece of string, <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>but have you set yourselves any particular time scale or any particular projections?

Catherine Brown: I think we are near to the end of the one-off programme of testing. Now it is a question of how we integrate this ongoing question of horse speciation specifically into the forward tests, and that requires us to balance it against other risks to authenticity, but also other risks worthy of sampling relating to safety issues.

Ms Ritchie: Thank you.

Q440 George Eustice: You heard at the end of his evidence that Mr Fairbairn was quite critical of the way the FSA had handled that particular case, on a couple of things. First, this issue of naming Freeza Meats, given that they were effectively just holding it and were not part of the supply chain. Do you think that is a fair comment, or do you feel it was necessary to name?

Catherine Brown: I think we only stated a set of facts at that stage as they were known to us. There are a number of live investigations, so it is not something that we can really comment on in any detail at this stage. Perhaps once that process has come to its end, we might be able to do a further retrospective summary for you of the issues.

Q441 George Eustice: The second one-which I thought was almost more important-is that in his chronology, he said that he had the product in August and they were holding it for McAdam, but then in September 2012, somebody from the EHO came and condemned it and put in an order, saying, "You cannot move this product." It then appears that it stayed there right until January. Can you say what was happening in the interim? Is it normal for product just to be condemned and stuck for five months?

Catherine Brown: This is a matter that the local authority, Newry and Mourne, were checking. They were doing checks of cold stores, in connection with the desinewed and mechanically separated meat (DSM/MSM) moratorium, and it was on that basis that they were inspecting things. They found something they were concerned about, so they put a restriction on it. Then it sat there for an amount of time-longer than we might naturally expect, but that is a local authority and local enforcement issue.2

Q442 George Eustice: Was it being held that extra length of time because of the horsemeat?

Catherine Brown: No.

Q443 George Eustice: So it was literally just that it was condemned?

Catherine Brown: It was just a local initiative, checking on the implementation of the moratorium.

Q444 George Eustice: What would normally happen in a normal situation, where meat is condemned because it has got freezer burn?

Catherine Brown: It would not necessarily be brought to our attention. It would be a local issue for resolution.

Q445 George Eustice: So that was really a failure of the local authority, rather than the FSA?

Catherine Brown: Or a success, inasmuch as they were doing checks in cold stores, found something that should be kept out of the chain and kept it out.

Andrew Rhodes: If I could just add something, what sometimes happens in cases like this with local authorities is they will issue a detention notice and then issue a disposal notice, and that can be legally challenged by the food business operator if they do not believe the grounds are sufficient. So Newry and Mourne were going through whatever their processes were. As Catherine says, we would not necessarily have known about a case like that, but it is not as straightforward as, "It then gets disposed of". That can be challenged, and they may have been preparing a case; I am not sure. In relation to the DSM moratorium, it was held for a period of time before the horsemeat incident. It was then sampled as part of that, because it was held in cold store, and then the results were found.

Q446 George Eustice: Do you have any role in giving advice to local authorities and EHOs in terms of protocols for these types of events? It must be quite common to get consignments of meat condemned for all sorts of different reasons.

Andrew Rhodes: We will, in generic events such as the incident itself. We issued a number of enforcement letters to local authorities, asking them to do various things. For example, we asked them to inspect all cold stores throughout the UK, and we said what we would like them to look for, what we would like them to do. We give generic advice on dealing with different enforcement matters, but the detention of meat that they believe was in breach of any particular regulations or might be unfit would be a very standard matter for an environmental health officer to deal with. They would not necessarily consult the FSA for something like that.

Lord Rooker: Can I just add to that? You used the term "failure of the local authority." I do not know anything about this local authority, but it is quite normal. There was a case recently in the Midlands where 40 tonnes of cooked chicken was detained in a cold store by the local authority following some tests. It was disputed and went to court, because the owner of it wanted to do something else with it. This was well before Christmas, and it recently came to the point where it was disposed of-literally destroyed. This had taken quite a long time, and it is a matter for the local authority. They had found it was wrong; it was riddled with salmonella, to tell you the truth. It was challenged, because it went to court before Christmas, and it was only recently that it was disposed of. This was a normal activity of environmental health departments. I do not consider that to be a failure of the local authority, in terms of the time it took.

Q447 George Eustice: I understand and agree, but are you aware whether that was the case? Was it challenged? Was their decision challenged in this particular case with Freeza Meats?

Lord Rooker: No. I just said I do not know about that, but it would be quite normal. The time factor would not surprise me.

George Eustice: If it were challenged?

Lord Rooker: If it were challenged.

Q448 George Eustice: But if it was not challenged, and someone just forgot about it, that would be a failure?

Lord Rooker: Yes, but someone owns it and it is not going into the food chain, so someone is losing money. You would expect someone to say, "Hang on; I want my meat," and they are saying "No, you can’t have it." It would either be destroyed or moved on. It could not be moved into the food chain because of the restriction that was placed on it.

Q449 Sheryll Murray: In this instance, where you have a third party holding stored meat for somebody else and it is clearly going to lose them money, they would seek compensation, presumably, from the original owner of the meat.

Andrew Rhodes: It would be a commercial matter for them to explore with them. They may do; they may not. It depends on what their arrangements are.

Q450 Sheryll Murray: What would happen if the local authority held up the process of that meat moving on, and then they found that it was all okay? Would they pay compensation?

Andrew Rhodes: Again, it would be for the individual to decide if they wanted to seek compensation from the local authority for maladministration. That is what the court process is there to adjudicate on. Each case would be taken on its merits.

Q451 Chair: Obviously, a consignment could easily get salmonella or something worse if it is just left to rot. Can you confirm that you were aware that the consignment was in this storage, being held for another company, for five months, and you tolerated that? Was the FSA aware of that fact?

Catherine Brown: We would be highly unlikely to know that. It is not at ambient temperatures, so it should not be rotting. It is a frozen environment.

Q452 Chair: Yes, but what we are trying to get our head around as a Committee is why the meat was held for five months in cold storage by the EHO, before it was suddenly checked in January to see if it was horsemeat. Why was it held because of the state it was in, without something happening to it? Then, hey presto, all of a sudden we are testing it in January for horsemeat.

Catherine Brown: I do not think it will have been the only consignment that will have been sitting in a cold store for a reasonably prolonged period of time. When people started checking for horse contamination, they will have found some of it in old and new consignments of meat. I do not think that there is necessarily a causal link between these things.

Q453 Chair: So it was held, first of all, because the EHO thought it did not look very nice, and then it was held for five months because it did not look very nice.

Catherine Brown: You would need to talk to Newry and Mourne. They had concerns about compliance with the moratorium, and they decided it did not look fit to enter the food chain, so they took steps to make sure it did not.

Q454 Chair: Of course, when you checked in January, that would be because the FSAI had informed you that the tests they had been doing from November had shown there was horsemeat around in consignments.

Catherine Brown: So it was tested for horsemeat as part of our follow­up tests on horsemeat, once we knew that was an issue.

Q455 George Eustice: I know you said you could not comment too much on the investigation, but can you say at least how many arrests there have been so far in relation to that? We know there are two publicly.

Andrew Rhodes: There have been two arrests so far, both of which are ongoing police matters. Both individuals have been released on police bail. That is a matter that is now being dealt with by the respective police forces and in conjunction with the larger investigation, which is overseen by the City of London police, involving police forces from around the UK.

Q456 George Eustice: Just to be clear, as yet there have been no prosecutions in either the UK or Ireland, as far as you are aware.

Andrew Rhodes: I am not aware of any prosecutions in Ireland. There have been no prosecutions as yet within the UK, but obviously those police and criminal investigations are ongoing. I am not aware of any prosecutions elsewhere in Europe at this point in time, either.

Lord Rooker: It is worth mentioning that there have been no civil actions, either, between suppliers, retailers and others, suing each other for false labelling and cheating on the funding. That is a reasonable question to ask as well: why not?

Q457 George Eustice: Are you aware of whether there are any under way?

Lord Rooker: No, we would not know.

Q458 Chair: Are you saying that there could be civil cases for fraud?

Lord Rooker: You ask a quite legitimate question about the prosecutions, but I am saying that it is also a reasonable question to ask why, in the trade, those who have been short-changed and cheated and sold to on a false premise have not given rise to any prosecutions or civil actions in court for breach of contract.

Chair: We will ask the questions, and we would like you to answer them.

Lord Rooker: It is a reasonable question to ask.

Chair: Indeed.

Q459 George Eustice: Do you have a view as to why that is? Do you think that there was not a fraud-that they knew what they were doing? Is that what you are suggesting?

Lord Rooker: No, I do not have a view. I am just saying that it is interesting, is it not, that nobody has taken any action?

Q460 George Eustice: It is. Regarding the police Gold Group that was set up to co­ordinate this, from your own evidence, you said that the first meeting took place on 24 April. Is there a reason why it has only recently taken place? Was it set up in response to a feeling that the co­ordination was not working as it should without such a focus?

Catherine Brown: No. We have been working very, very closely, but as the complexity became clear and the number of different forces became clear, it became clear that it was appropriate to have a cross-police-force co-ordinating mechanism.

Andrew Rhodes: That is exactly right. It did not impinge on the investigation in any way, but Gold Group is when the collective police forces signify that they feel the investigation has reached a particularly critical juncture, and therefore they convene at that level of grouping.

Q461 George Eustice: So it is not a response to a perceived problem or lack of co­ordination. It is just that you think this is the right time to pull it together.

Andrew Rhodes: Gold Group can be convened when an investigation reaches a particular threshold. As they collect evidence-that evidence may extend outside of the matter that we are investigating-that can trigger the police to take a level of intervention, and that is what they then do.

Q462 George Eustice: What, in tangible terms, does the Gold Group have? How does it aid the process? Is there a greater level of information-sharing, or a regular meeting at which they exchange updates? What, in practice, does it actually mean?

Andrew Rhodes: Without my divulging anything sensitive, Gold Group will typically involve the establishment of an intelligence cell for the sharing of data. That was already happening from Europol as well. That happened very early in this process. We were the first to submit evidence to Europol. What happens is this: they may establish an intelligence cell. You will have an overseeing police force-in this case, the City of London, because this is considered an economic crime and the City of London police are the lead police co­ordinating force for economic crime-and that will involve all the different police forces, and any other intelligence agencies as needed, as they step up their response and the investigation reaches certain thresholds. It may never be convened in certain incidents. It depends on the number of forces involved.

Q463 George Eustice: Just another thing: we know that the Dutch authorities are also conducting investigations on a trading company that has got a couple of names, Willy Selten and Wiljo. They, I think, have told you that they think a number of UK businesses may have received products from those. Have you been able to establish whether that is the case so far?

Andrew Rhodes: We have investigated all the companies that may have received product, and we were not able to identify that any of them had. The difficulty the Dutch authorities experienced is that there were very few, if any, records held by the companies they were investigating, which is why the Dutch issued, in effect, a blanket rapid alert about 50,000 tonnes of meat. They could only say who had been supplied by this company at any point in time. They were unable to trace any of the actual meat itself, so although we investigated all the companies, that does not mean that any of them received any of the goods, and we do not have any evidence that any of them actually did in this case.

Q464 George Eustice: Just to be clear, that is because the company that was supplying it was not keeping adequate records and did not have adequate traceability?

Andrew Rhodes: That is why the Dutch had to issue the type of notification that they did. It is what we would do if we had a company where the records were insufficient. You would issue a blanket warning about all the products affected, and that is exactly what the Dutch did. It does not mean that all 50,000 tonnes were contaminated; it means that all 50,000 tonnes were suspect.

Q465 Barry Gardiner: I want to go over some of the things that we heard earlier, and pick up on what you said, Ms Brown, about the close co­operative working now between yourself and the FSAI. McAdam Food Products, in their written evidence submitted to the Committee, has said, "The sources of the beef products that we ordered, and some of which have been identified to have contained equine DNA, were two factories in Poland and a meat trading company in the UK, the names of which have been provided to the authorities in Ireland." They go on to say: "I provided details of all orders, supplying companies, and original documentation to inspectors of the Department of Agriculture and the FSAI, and I have co­operated fully with the investigations." Has the FSAI passed that information on to you? Are you aware who the alleged suppliers from Poland were?

Catherine Brown: We do not have outstanding information requests with FSAI at the moment.

Q466 Barry Gardiner: Let’s speak in English. You say you do not have outstanding information requests with the FSAI.

Catherine Brown: There is nothing we have asked for-

Barry Gardiner: Does that mean you have asked them the question and they have answered it, or does it mean that you have not asked them the question?

Andrew Rhodes: Do we possess the information you are asking about? Yes, we do possess that information as part of the investigation.

Q467 Barry Gardiner: You do possess that information, so you know precisely who the alleged suppliers from Poland were.

Andrew Rhodes: That is part of the investigation, looking at whether that company supplied anyone else.

Q468 Barry Gardiner: But at the moment, you consider it is not right to put that into the public domain. Is that correct?

Andrew Rhodes: I am not sure if it has been named elsewhere in the public domain at this point in time.

Q469 Barry Gardiner: Are you prepared to name those companies?

Catherine Brown: Not without checking.

Q470 Barry Gardiner: Once you have checked, could you write to us?

Catherine Brown: Yes, of course.

Q471 Barry Gardiner: What was your take on-if I can put it that way-the statement made to the Dáil by Minister Coveney, when he said the equine DNA found in consignments of frozen beef products "was labelled to be of Polish origin"? That is a very precise statement, is it not? Did you pick up on that in any way? Did you ask any questions of the FSAI about that, as to why he had been quite so specific in saying that it was "labelled" to be of Polish origin? I mean, it was "labelled" to be beef, was it not? Saying it was "labelled" to be something seems rather perverse in the circumstances.

Catherine Brown: It is not a phrase that we particularly singled out.

Q472 Barry Gardiner: It is not something you picked up on at all. Did you at all question the FSAI about B&F Meats, who were found to have been involved in the mislabelling of a limited quantity of horsemeat for export to the Czech Republic? You will remember that that was in Minister Coveney’s own statement, but he went on to say that no fraud was involved, because apparently both sides knew that they were calling this horse "beef." Did you ask the FSAI anything about that-about why their Minister should have said that it was not fraudulent because both parties knew that they were mislabelling this product as beef, when in fact it was horse? Have you queried them about that?

Catherine Brown: No.

Q473 Barry Gardiner: Do you not think it might be a sensible line of questioning? Let me ask you the question in a different way. If two companies in the United Kingdom agreed to label horse as beef, and said, "Oh, well, don’t worry; it wasn’t fraud because we both knew what we were doing," would you not have them bang to rights for conspiracy to defraud?

Catherine Brown: We certainly would have a lively investigation into what was going on, and we would not think it was acceptable.

Q474 Barry Gardiner: Have you asked the FSAI if they have had, in your words, Ms Brown, "a lively investigation" into what was going on, and asked B&F Meats whether they were engaged in a conspiracy to defraud?

Catherine Brown: The focus of our efforts and our responsibility is taking forward the investigations in our jurisdiction.

Q475 Barry Gardiner: But it is difficult to do that unless you have got clear sight of where this product is coming from. If you have got the Irish Minister telling you that it was "labelled" to be Polish, and it was not fraud because both parties knew that it was actually horse, then that makes it very difficult for you to get clear sight of your own investigation, does it not?

Catherine Brown: There are two things. There are the things that we can investigate that are within our jurisdiction, and then there is the European process for ensuring that there is appropriate collaboration across Europe, to make sure that all European consumers are appropriately protected. We are taking both of those processes forward.

Q476 Barry Gardiner: Given the history of double book-keeping by many of the companies that were implicated in the beef tribunal-many of whom are still running meat-processing and trading companies in Ireland-what processes does the FSA have in place to identify double book-keeping in any of the companies based in the UK, and what requests have you made of the FSA about their process for identifying double bookkeeping in the companies in Ireland? Specifically, have you impounded computer hard drives and looked at databases?

Catherine Brown: It is a live investigation that we are undertaking with the police.

Q477 Barry Gardiner: Have you impounded computers?

Catherine Brown: I do not think that we should disclose details of the live investigations. I will check with our lawyers, but that was my advice on attending, with regard to the live investigations.

Q478 Barry Gardiner: That is fine. I am very happy to leave that one there. Let me just ask you about Greencore, which is in your jurisdiction. Greencore have miraculously given themselves a clean bill of health, have they not? ASDA did a test on the product-the meat in Bolognese sauce-that found it was 5% equine. Greencore said that they then did their own tests-I think ABP did some of the tests for them-and found that there was not any. Did you just say, "Well, that’s all right, then"?

Catherine Brown: I would not want to comment on Greencore specifically.

Q479 Barry Gardiner: Why?

Catherine Brown: Because these are specific cases that are part of a nexus of things that are under investigation, but what I think it is fair to say is that we have taken enforcement­grade samples through our sampling programme, so that is exactly about not saying, "That’s all right". We did get the industry to do their own very large testing programme, and that was great, but we did not just say, "I tell you what, then: we will take it that that is true."

Q480 Barry Gardiner: Have you challenged Greencore Group PLC’s statement that says, "Given it was conclusively proved that we actually had no contamination in our supply chain"?

Catherine Brown: We would not comment on individual statements made by individual companies, necessarily, when we are in the middle of an investigation.

Q481 Barry Gardiner: But ASDA have not withdrawn their finding of that contamination of the supply chain from Greencore that said that the product was 5% contaminated with horse, have they?

Catherine Brown: One of the things that happens is when we take multiple samples-

Barry Gardiner: Is it "No, they haven’t"?

Catherine Brown: No, they have not, but one of the reasons we take three parts of every enforcement sample is so that, if there is a divergence in test results, there can be a ruling by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist on which is correct.

Q482 Barry Gardiner: The last time you were before the Committee, you questioned the methodology used by the FSAI, and you will have seen the evidence session that we had with Mr Reilly since then. Do you still have reservations about the type of DNA tests used by the FSAI, and more specifically, would you consider that the sampling was conducted as it was precisely to ensure that no prosecution of an Irish company could take place?

Catherine Brown: I will answer the second bit, and then I will ask Steve to answer the first bit. No, I do not think that is why they used this methodology. Steve, do you have any comments on the methodology?

Steve Wearne: I think you have to distinguish between the sampling and the analytical test. The analytical test was a commercial test by IdentiGEN. It is their commercial methodology, which is claimed to have a low limit of detection, but the methodological approach taken-qualitative testing, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), semi­quantitative testing, and then speciation to determine the species present-is the same basic methodology as the test we use in public analyst laboratories in the UK. There is nothing inherently flawed about the methodological approach; it is simply that it is a commercial method, and for that reason, we do not have access to all the supporting documentation. The question about the analytical methodology is separate from that of sample. You can take a good sample and have it analysed by a poor method, or vice versa.

Q483 Barry Gardiner: Yes, I understand that. Ms Brown, you said that you do not think that it was deliberately done in such a way as to avoid a prosecution. Once they had done that sampling and established that there was equine contamination, would it not have been very simple, given that you usually take three elements of the product, to then have conducted tests or samples or analysis of that product that could have resulted in a prosecution? If that is the case, why do you consider that the FSAI failed to do that?

Catherine Brown: I am not sure it is for me to speculate on why the FSAI-

Q484 Barry Gardiner: Could you answer the first part of the question? Could they have done that at that stage?

Catherine Brown: Yes. You could go back and sample from the same batch, and take an enforcement sample and take it through.

Q485 Barry Gardiner: So they could have conducted tests that could have resulted in a prosecution of the companies concerned. Had you been in that situation with a company in the UK-where because of the nature of the method of sampling you would not have been able to proceed to a prosecution on that basis, but had nonetheless found high levels of contamination in the product-would you have gone back and taken further samples to ensure that you could, if you chose, carry out a prosecution?

Catherine Brown: Yes, we would have. Indeed, it was to avoid that happening that we went for the enforcement-standard sampling through the surveillance activity that we undertook.

Lord Rooker: Both the laboratories that I have visited-one huge and one small-have confirmed that that is exactly the case. They are doing what we ask them, in terms of the way we ask for the samples. They are two quite separate laboratories.

Q486 Barry Gardiner: You had what I think may have been either a meeting or a conversation prior to the telephone conversation with Mr Reilly. I think you met their chief scientist, or their chief analyst.

Chair: Have we not just established that they have not met?

Barry Gardiner: No, the chief analyst.

Catherine Brown: I think perhaps you are thinking of our chief scientist. The FSA in this country have been in constant contact and had meetings, but I have not personally met with them.

Barry Gardiner: Let me ask the question in a different way, then. I was trying to do it more obliquely, but I will just have to be blunt. Do you believe that the FSAI at any time were withholding information from you that they were in possession of about the level of horsemeat contamination?

Catherine Brown: There was clearly a six-week period, while they were engaged in confirming and checking their results and testing, when they had suspicions and concerns, and clearly they decided that they wanted to be prudent and completely assured that their understanding was correct before they communicated it. There was clearly a period of time when they had concerns that we were not party to.

Barry Gardiner: Of course.

Q487 Chair: Could you just specify when that six­week period was?

Lord Rooker: It was 23 November until 14 January.

Chair: Previously when you appeared before this Committee, we did ask-I asked myself-why you had not conducted tests at that time yourselves.

Catherine Brown: The Committee asked us why we had not tested while they were testing, but the answer was because we did not know that there was any reason to be concerned.

Lord Rooker: That is why we have indicated some asterisks on our timeline that we have provided you. The asterisks are absolutely crucial, because we are giving you information that we need you to know we did not know at the time on the timeline. Subsequently, we have discovered about the two tests and sending samples to Germany for cross­checking. We did not know about any of this, and we repeat that on the 10 January phone call to our chief scientist from FSAI, no mention whatsoever of horsemeat was made. That was four days before.

Q488 Barry Gardiner: Ms Brown, you have been extremely magnanimous in saying that there was obviously going to be a period of time when the FSAI needed to do that very legitimate checking and so on, where they were aware but they could not go public, and they could not even divulge it to you. Do you believe that there was a time when it no longer could be considered reasonable for them to have delayed divulging that information or sharing that information with you?

Catherine Brown: I think they had confirmation on 10 January, so there were four days when they could have told us that they had confirmation, but I think that the bigger question that is on my mind for the future, in terms of both international relationships with regulators and relations with industry, is how we create an environment where people are prepared to share their suspicions and concerns before they have confirmation. Really, the time when it would be most useful to share intelligence would be when you had a reason to be worried. We could have tested when we all knew there was a reason to be worried, so we are very keen to create an environment and a new process that gives some level of proportionate protection, so that people do not overreact to early-stage intelligence, but enables people to share early­stage concerns.

Q489 Chair: Would that not flow from our initial recommendation that you have the power to request tests? Basically, we are saying that you should have the power to require tests.

Catherine Brown: That is a very helpful suggestion, but sometimes intelligence can predate tests, and you would want to be careful not to make people think that if they did not test something, they did not have to tell you, because you want them to share their suspicions. If they end up with an awareness that something is happening in a particular part of the world that might lead to a problem, even pre­testing, we would want them to share intelligence. Your recommendation is a helpful one, but it is not a substitute for intelligence sharing and an improvement to our intelligence­sharing approach. This is something that companies have said to us: "It is difficult and uncomfortable for us to share information where there might be commercial advantage or commercial interests at stake, but we see now more clearly that it might be in all of our interests, and the consumer’s interest, if we could find a way of doing that." One of the things we are now going to explore is what kind of mechanisms we could put in place that give a level of confidentiality but enable us to aggregate intelligence.

Lord Rooker: Could I just add to that? I think Catherine has been incredibly generous, and rightly so, because we understand the position that our colleagues were in in the Republic, but in future we want them to have the confidence to tell us. This is the second time in six years this kind of incident has arisen, where we have not been told. The last one was on the dioxins, which predates my tenure at the FSA. Indeed, our current document, our agreement with them on the exchange of information, came about as a result of the last incident, because it was revamped. As I said to you in January, we agree that if the document operated then, we would have the confidence to alert people at the earliest opportunity to details of any food incident or potential food incident that may affect the other or both jurisdictions, and where there may be a risk or potential risk to consumers. It is fairly clear-you do not need to translate-that if you think you have got something, you tip off the others, but with confidence that while you are still testing, nothing is said or done that upsets the arrangements, because it may be that you do not find anything.

Q490 Chair: I remind the panel of what I said at the beginning: regular meetings and the old adage that "it’s good to talk" will promote that kind of transparency.

Catherine Brown: Absolutely, and we do have that. We do have extremely regular meetings. We have a director in Northern Ireland, and the team there are in daily touch. It is not that there was not an opportunity, but that we had not created, somehow, the correct understanding to take that.

Q491 Neil Parish: Carrying on the same questioning, I want to go back to the question of your view of the specific type of DNA test carried out by the Irish FSA, which identified trace contamination. I am not sure you answered on whether we would use such a test here.

Catherine Brown: I thought the public analysts’ comments on it, when they joined you, were very interesting and helpful. They said it was a good, standard, reputable test.

Steve Wearne: The approach to methodology is first of all to do a qualitative test to see whether there is a foreign species present. You then do real-time PCR, which allows you to have some semi-quantitative analysis of what is in the sample, and then for absolute confirmation you sequence some of the DNA sequences present, to determine beyond any doubt what the species are. That three-step approach, that basic methodology, was in the IdentiGEN test conducted by the FSAI and also in the majority of tests that public analysts in the UK conducted, so it is sound. The precise details of the test and how IdentiGEN operates are a matter of commercial confidentiality, but the basic methodology is sound and common to tests that we ourselves conducted in the UK.

Catherine Brown: I think there have been some questions raised about the specificity-not in a technical sense, but in terms of the exact numbers. When you talk to people in the labs, they say it is unusual to say things like, "There is 29%". It is usual to say that there is a band. I think there is a desire in the scientific community to understand the underpinnings, and to see the peer reviews. The things that we said last time remain the case. It would be good practice for people to be able to understand the basis of the test, but as Steve says, on the basis of any of the evidence available to us, it is not an unreasonable test to carry out.

Q492 Neil Parish: The cost of testing can be up to £350 a time. When it comes to horsemeat, is there an argument that we could save some of this testing if we had a far better national database for horse passports, knowing where horses are and what they have been injected with? You could have something to back up the situation, instead of testing all the time. In the future, we are not going to test at the level we are now, at £350 a time.

Catherine Brown: Certainly, the point you make about how sampling fits into an overall system of controls is important in this space and in general. As I think we discussed last time we were here, the way that consumers are protected is not through sampling; it is through a system of controls that work together. Sampling is a way of testing that they are working, so certainly in that respect, a well-functioning horse passport system is an important part of that system of controls.

Q493 Neil Parish: Are you confident that in the future you can introduce a genuine spot check, which the industry will not know about before it descends on them?

Catherine Brown: Yes, we already have various unannounced-visit-type modalities that we can deploy, so I do not think it is impossible for us to do unexpected spot checks. The critical thing is having the intelligence to know what to do those spot checks on, because random checking is not going to be efficacious. It is going to be very expensive, and highly likely to miss whatever it is. It has got to be about sharing intelligence, getting better at going to the right place and winning the lottery more often.

Q494 Neil Parish: So that takes us back to the original argument with the FSAI. Was it a lucky dip, or did they have intelligence? I do not suppose you want to comment on that.

Catherine Brown: Our position has not changed since last time.

Q495 Chair: There was a press report at the weekend-one of many-that the FSA had planned to test all horses slaughtered in the UK in January for bute, but then delayed. Is that the case? I think the headline was "The Food Standards Agency explored the idea of testing all horses slaughtered in the UK months before the horsemeat food crisis began in January"-so that would be 2012-"but then decided not to do so". Is that the case? It is your opportunity to tell us that this was a lie.

Andrew Rhodes: I am more than happy to answer that question. We had been looking at passport controls throughout 2012. We doubled the level of controls at slaughterhouses. We introduced new regimes for the control of animals that were presented with faulty, fraudulent or missing paperwork. They are then disposed of as animal by-product; they are not allowed to leave the premises. We invested in new microchip scanning software, and as we looked at this we also explored the issue of veterinary medicines not being recorded on the horse passport. As we now know, we have a positive release system in the UK. At that time we were looking at how to arrive at a position where we had enough evidence to make a number of decisions. These might involve, at one extreme end, saying that horses cannot enter the food chain because of veterinary medicine issues, or introducing a positive release system and charging the industry for it. Either one of those would have consequences, and could have serious upstream consequences if we got it wrong.

What the BBC have looked at is a very small amount of evidence, which is actually an exchange between me and another official, where we talk about testing any new test that is available, and seeing how well it works. It is absolutely not true to say that plans were ever in place to test all horses at that point in time. It was not until January that we had sufficient evidence that said, "We need to get a definitive picture of the level of phenylbutazone being found in horses being slaughtered". We introduced 100% testing for that. At the same time, in conjunction with Fera, which I know you know well, we were able to develop a faster turnaround test without increasing the cost to us, although there is an overall increased cost. We were then able to introduce positive release, as we started to see positive tests emerging. What was reported at the weekend is not an accurate representation of what was actually happening and being discussed at the FSA in November.

Lord Rooker: In May last year, Jim Paice and I were on the receiving end of complaints from a Member of your House about FSA inspectors slowing down work in a horse abattoir, messing about with extra checks and tests. The owner had been on to the MP. When I wrote to the Member concerned-the date was 14 August-I explained in a long letter, which was at least three pages, that we were doing these extra tests last summer because of the things that we had discovered that Andrew has just explained, and that because of what we had been doing, we were about to start a sampling process for bute. This was going to be quite a systematic programme for a few months, which would take us to the end of the year. That was proceeding in advance, because obviously we knew nothing about the horsemeat. We were on to that and doing that. The complaints were from the abattoir owner that we were slowing down the line. We were slowing down the line because horses were turning up with the wrong passports-horses that were classified as already dead-and then we started to do the checks for the bute. As Andrew has explained, it was quite unfair. We had not reached the point where we were told it was a threeweek test, so, "Get an abattoir or a freezer and keep the carcasses for three weeks". We could not do that.

Chair: We now turn to machinery of government changes in 2010.

Q496 Mrs Glindon: Thank you, Chair. In Scotland, the FSA is responsible for food safety as well as nutrition and labelling. What difference does this make in Scotland, compared to the situation here in England?

Catherine Brown: We have to work in intense collaboration with other Government departments everywhere. In Scotland we work with the devolved Administration and all the different components of that. That applies in England and Wales. I would say that the important thing to bear in mind is that wherever the exact lines are drawn around responsibilities here, we have to work across them to bring together a UK position, and to work in Europe. That requires us to work very closely with the Defra Secretary of State. While there are differences in where those lines are drawn in the different countries of the UK, in practical terms we work together across those lines wherever they are drawn.

Q497 Mrs Glindon: We know that food issues are not broken down into the simple delineations that are made between Government departments. Something that is initially a labelling issue, for example, could easily become a food safety issue. How do you ensure a close link between on-the-ground enforcement and policy?

Catherine Brown: We play an important part in that, because we manage the relationship with the local authorities, and that is really critical. We work with Defra on the authenticity policy-setting process, working out together what the priorities are and we support local authorities, as well, with guidance and advice on how to do enforcement when they are in an enforcement situation. Does that answer your question?

Q498 Mrs Glindon: How simple is that? Do you feel that it is easy to marry the two together?

Catherine Brown: It is never easy to marry the desire to implement consistent national policy across several hundred different local authorities who have legitimate and different local perspectives, and severe resource pressures. I would not call it easy, but I would say that there are a lot of good linkages and processes in place, where discussions can take place on what the priorities should be. We also have fighting funds that we make available to local authorities, so that local authorities can bid to get extra money to do extra sampling against the sampling plan, and we have never declined a good application to that fund. It is not simple, but it is functional.

Lord Rooker: Going back to your first question and Catherine’s answer, there are key differences between England and Scotland. In Scotland, because the FSA is responsible for all the other issues, we are openly and transparently non-conflicted, because we are not responsible for the economic sponsorship of the food industry. In England, whichever way you care to look at it-I am not a civil servant, so I can be quite open about this-to the perception of an outsider, Defra is an ordinary Government department. It does not meet in the open, and it is the economic sponsor of the food industry. Therefore, people might perceive it as being conflicted, as it has the responsibilities for country of origin, labelling, and authentication. That is the key difference between England and Scotland. In Scotland, we are completely open and transparent and in no way conflicted, and that is the way the Scottish Government intends the new Scottish food body to be. In England, a reasonable observer could make a case that there is a conflicted arrangement, but that is for others to debate. That is not something we can change, because it is the Prime Minister’s personal decision.

Q499 Mrs Glindon: The next part of the question I would like to ask perhaps leads on from that. When you last came before the Committee you suggested that the decision to reduce the remit of the FSA was the Government’s and not yours. Do you consider the current division of responsibilities to be the best one?

Lord Rooker: With respect, you cannot reasonably expect three civil servants to answer about a machinery of government change. The Prime Minister is personally responsible for the machinery of government, not Ministers. After 2010, when the decision was made overnight, without warning or discussion, the civil servants at the FSA carried out, to the best of their ability, the decisions on the machinery of government changes that were announced to the House by the Prime Minister. It was not their job to question it; it was their job to make it work. I genuinely feel that throughout, they have done their best to make it work, and to build good relations. The industry has its own view. The Board was opposed to it, but the Board was never consulted anyway. As it was not a central food safety issue, as opposed to food standards, it was not something worth going to war about. However, I do not think it is fair; generally speaking, even Ministers will not discuss machinery of government changes publicly, because the man at the top makes the decision. Is the current arrangement satisfactory? I ask you to look at the fact that the one country that is about to set up a new food body is going for an all-encompassing body. The consultation is ongoing in Scotland, because they want it to be arm’s-length, open and transparent, and non-conflicted. That is the way the Scottish Government are operating in their consultation.

Q500 Mrs Glindon: Thank you, Lord Rooker, for attempting to give the best answer. I have one more question to ask you. What is your assessment of our recommendation that the FSA be given the power to require testing to be undertaken by retailers and local authorities when you have suspicions about particular products?

Catherine Brown: I think, as we touched on earlier, it is helpful. Our own review will think about where there might be regulatory changes that would be helpful, and I am sure other wider reviews will also look at it. One area in which we feel there might be scope to look is at the fact that the powers are in the system, but at the moment they are very much exercised through local authorities. This is generally good, because in local situations that is a very sensible way of dealing with things. However, when you end up with something that has a supra-regional or national aspect to it-as any kind of large-scale food safety or food standards issue will-it is very hard to get consistency and pace. We think that there would be merit in considering the possibility of a switch-on, switch-off arrangement. It is not that we want to have lots of extra powers; we are perfectly happy for local authorities to deal with things in the normal run of local incidents. However, perhaps somebody should be able to say, whether it be our Board or some third party, "Actually, now we’re in a national situation. Let’s take some of these powers centrally, just to deal with this situation and this incident." We think that that is where there might be real mileage, although the ability to require testing and to require the publication of testing could also sometimes be very relevant. In this case, all the people we have asked to test have tested.

Barry Gardiner: I want to give the Chair’s apologies for leaving the hearing. A number of constituents are visiting her, and she did not want to be discourteous to them, but equally she did not want to be discourteous to you.

Q501 Neil Parish: I want to talk a little bit about country-of-origin labelling. What are your views on country-of-origin labelling, and should this apply to processed meat as well as unprocessed products?

Catherine Brown: This is a Defra lead, although we support Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on this. We are supportive of the requirement to do an impact assessment, because clearly what needs to be weighed up here is the benefits of transparency versus the cost to the industry and the benefit to the consumer. I am not clear on the causal linkage or benefits between these incidents and country-of-origin labelling, but perhaps I am missing an important and obvious point.

Q502 Neil Parish: Yes, but going back to my great friend, Tesco, if they make a statement that they are going to access all meat products from the British Isles, because they want to use that-I am not against that at all; in fact, I am very keen on the promotion of British meat-surely they have got to have a robust system to make sure that that is precisely the case. We have had enough trouble with horsemeat in there, but as I said, I have yet to be convinced that they are going to be able to DNA-test for different types of beef in different parts of the world.

Catherine Brown: Absolutely.

Lord Rooker: You can do that.

Q503 Neil Parish: I know you can do that, but how practical is it? How likely is it to happen?

Catherine Brown: I think that is absolutely right. If you want to make a claim, you have got to be prepared to substantiate that claim. That would not necessarily require changes to country-of-origin labelling; it merely requires you to be able to substantiate whatever claim you put on your packaging.

Andrew Rhodes: It is exercised through traceability exercises. Tesco’s prior policy was that the product had to be from Britain or Ireland. They enforced that through their contracts; that is an issue for them, and not necessarily an issue for us. However, you exercise that diligence through traceability. You look at the product you have received, and you trace it all the way back through the chain. That is what we did in all these cases. It does not have to be DNA testing. Of course, when you get an anomaly, that is where these companies can take whatever steps they feel are necessary to ensure that food chain. That is what they are currently looking at. How do they make sure they can secure that and demonstrate it-and ensure that their suppliers can demonstrate it to their satisfaction? I imagine it has been set at a higher bar than before this happened.

Steve Wearne: It is instructive to reflect on the statements made by key industry players. The Committee will remember that when Tesco gave evidence on 30 January, they were dismayed that the primary control they were exhibiting at that point, which was a commercial contract around GB and Irish sourcing of meat that went into their burgers, was not followed through by the producers. Subsequently, I know that some of you were very recently at the meeting of the All-Party Food and Health Forum, which heard from a senior caterer and another senior retailer. They said that the controls they are now looking to apply in the food chain are about having complete visibility, all the way back through the food chain to the primary producer. Inherently, that must offer much more certainty about the provenance of food than something that just relies on a commercial contract, operating at one stage or another in the process.

Q504 Neil Parish: If you have got a chicken or a piece of beef or pork, and you have got a farm assurance scheme-say a Red Tractor scheme-then you can trace that particular piece of meat very convincingly. You were talking about how there need to be assurance schemes as well as testing. How can you make sure that, for processed products, it is going to go on the label? A product might have quite a number of meats and the like in it. Surely that needs to be on the label in order for it to be traced?

Catherine Brown: No, it does not need to be on the label to be traced. It needs to be in the paperwork, and it needs to be transparently made available to either the purchaser, if that is part of their arrangement, or the regulator. It does not need to go on the label. To have to put an extra 15 countries on the label because of the complexities of the food chain-

Q505 Neil Parish: This is an old chestnut of mine. Is it not possible to put that on a barcode? It does not necessarily need to be on a label. You talk about a paper trail, but surely this is what all this is about. We have landed up with horsemeat in our food. For years, when I was in the European Parliament, I complained that for imported meat, nobody ever actually opened the lorry to see what was in there. With respect, it is not just about a paper trail.

Catherine Brown: No, it is not. Of course, it is a matter for the industry to work out how they are going to deliver on their requirements and commitments, and it is a matter for us to challenge whether the processes and systems they have put in place are adequate.

Q506 Neil Parish: We have this drive towards the retailer really wanting to reassure the public, quite rightly, on where their meat products have come from. Are you satisfied that we have, or can put in place, a system of labelling that is robust?

Catherine Brown: I do not think there is any evidence that this is a labelling issue. It is a fraud issue, and a composition and authenticity control issue. It is important that the entire system of controls is invigorated and moved beyond an entirely paper-based system. It may be that there are changes that could be made to labels that would be conducive to that, but I do not think that they are essential to it.

Q507 Neil Parish: What extra pressures are you going to put on the retailers to deliver this? It is no good if the retailers just say, "We’re going to do this", because they are doing it for commercial reasons. I am not complaining about that, but we need to make sure that it happens.

Catherine Brown: Yes, absolutely. One of the areas that is very important now, and where it is very helpful to have input and advice both to us and to the industry, is how transparent should the industry be, and how transparent should they be expected to be? We do believe that it would be in the consumer’s interest, and indeed the interest of the industry, for them to be much more transparent about the nature of the controls they are relying on, their samples practices and their sample results. There is a good level of agreement around transparency on the results of testing for horse speciation, but our view on that is that the next issue will not be horse into beef. It will be something else, and the industry needs to be prepared to step up and be more transparent about their wider framework of controls, and their wider sampling practices and results. That is an area where we do not have powers, but there could be a consensus that that is the right thing to do, and the industry might then choose to do it.

Q508 Barry Gardiner: Perhaps one way of addressing Mr Parish’s question and avoiding the pitfalls of having to say the 15 different countries that it came from is simply to do what they do in other countries, which is to say "meat products from more than one country of origin". Would that not be a simple and elegant way round it, which would alert the consumer to the fact that this was not single prime Aberdeen Angus that had been minced up in their lasagne?

Catherine Brown: I know you have got Mr Heath coming to see you. They lead on this area for the UK and I am sure they will be happy to talk about these options.

Q509 Neil Parish: With respect, that is exactly what happens now, with the EU. It can come from wherever, and we cannot trace it. That is the old chestnut.

Lord Rooker: How can the French claim that the lamb sold in French restaurants is French when, if you DNA test, everyone would find out it started life in Wales or Scotland? If you go down the route of country of origin, from what Catherine said, it might be unwise. Nevertheless, it should be possible to pin people down if they make a claim. They can make a claim, but the claim has got to be able to be tested. If it is a private claim-because it is a commercial claim really-that still has to be tested. There needs to be some kind of arrangement or system for that. Putting a flag on for country of origin is probably not the easy way to do that. There have to be other ways of doing it.

Q510 Barry Gardiner: Going back to the labelling of the product in storage and in the factories, you will recall that Mr Fairbairn said that the labels have to be issued by the veterinary authority. Given that one of the causes of the McAdam consignment being rejected by whoever it was rejected by, and being held in storage because it was deemed unfit, was that the labelling was irregular-not just that it had been bashed about-what questions have you asked about the origin of the labelling and the involvement of the veterinary agency in the sourcing of those labels? Were these labels genuine, or were they stuck on there?

Catherine Brown: One of the core components of the nexus of investigations that we are going through with the policy is about labelling: what labels are put on where, who has put them on, and whether they are appropriate. All the issues around labelling are absolutely core to the investigation.

Q511 Barry Gardiner: You confirm what Mr Fairbairn told us, which was that a large-scale fraud by a big company going on for a long time could not have taken place without the collusion of somebody from the veterinary agency?

Catherine Brown: I would not want to confirm that.

Q512 Barry Gardiner: Do you think he was wrong?

Catherine Brown: I could not hear him, I did not follow his argument, and I would not want to comment on it until I had seen it.

Q513 Barry Gardiner: Can the FSA operate satisfactorily with a staff reduction of 5.5% in 2011-12?

Catherine Brown: We are very confident that the efficiency steps that we are taking are truly efficiency steps, so we are doing things like reducing the footprint of our accommodation. That will have saved £5 million by the time we have done the most recent consolidation. We have taken out management overhead and we have reduced sickness rates. I think it is very important that we do not think that genuine efficiency is a bad thing. We are delivering our activities. We have driven up compliance in the meat industry while we have made efficiencies. We have had the National Audit Office in recently, helping us to think about whether there are other areas we can make efficiencies. Of course, there will come a time when, if resources continue to shrink indefinitely, we will move beyond being able to make efficiencies, and into not being able to function satisfactorily, but it is not this year.3

Q514 Barry Gardiner: The Chair was keen that I ask you about the consultancy fees that have been incurred while you have suffered that loss of staff. I think there has been £76,000 of consultancy fees, with one supplier paid £38,000. The Chair was keen to know who that was and what it was for.

Catherine Brown: We will need to come back to you.4

Q515 Barry Gardiner: If you could do that in writing, it would be helpful. Thank you very much. Perhaps, because of the exigencies of time, you could also respond in writing to another question: in 2009, your Board noted the expectation to cover costs fully, yet in 2010-11 and 2011-12 that did not happen. I think it is about 50% cost recovery at the moment. I know there is a big issue of cost recovery and it would be helpful to get a very full response from you in writing on that.

Catherine Brown: That is fine.5

Q516 Barry Gardiner: Thank you. The data on food sampling suggests significant variation between local authorities. For example, 19 local authorities did no sampling in 2011-12. How do you account for that variation?

Catherine Brown: Andrew, do you want to comment on this one?

Andrew Rhodes: Although the official returns show they have not reported any sampling, that does not mean they did not do any. A number of local authorities had issues uploading their returns to us, so in every case where local authorities indicated they have not returned any sampling results, we followed that up. There are only three local authorities in the last two years who have consistently not carried out sampling.

Q517 Barry Gardiner: Which are they?

Andrew Rhodes: Those three local authorities are Camden, Sefton and Leicester City. They have all been audited by the FSA, and we are dealing with them at the moment to understand what is going on in those areas. Of course, local authorities make local decisions on what they feel they should and can do, and that is based on what their members guide them on. However, while the returns that we have had indicate that there are a number of local authorities not sampling, that is not actually accurate. They have not returned the data to us. There are some local authorities which have carried out ad hoc sampling work which they have not necessarily counted as formal enforcement sampling.

Q518 Barry Gardiner: You are telling the Committee that there are three authorities that have conducted no sampling at all.

Andrew Rhodes: There are.

Q519 Barry Gardiner: That would be in direct contradiction to the parliamentary Question that was answered by the Minister for Public Health, which stated that none had returned no sample.

Catherine Brown: No, there was an answer to a parliamentary Question, which I think identified 15 as the number, but it was those who had none reported. There is an Answer that says there are a number of local authorities who had none reported in the LAEMS. What Andrew is telling you is that when we followed that through, there were only three who had carried none out. Obviously what we then need to do is to audit and interrogate them on why that is happening, and whether there is appropriate overall control. It is a different definition from that in the Answer to the parliamentary Question.

Q520 Neil Parish: I have a similar question. There appears to be an overall reduction in food sampling since 2009-10 across all types of authority. Is this a local decision?

Andrew Rhodes: There was a 14.6% reduction last year compared to the previous year on the amount of food standards sampling, and that is across the board. Interventions were down in every single category for food standards across the board, with the notable exception of enforcement action, which rose compared to the previous year. That suggests that local authorities are being ever more targeted in their interventions. Essentially this is down to local decisions on where resources are applied. We have not seen a similar shift in food safety interventions. This is about food standards, so the two are quite different.

Catherine Brown: We need to reflect on how we get maximum intelligence value from sampling, wherever it takes place. Risks like the ones we are discussing around authenticity are very unlikely to be entirely localised in Camden, for example. We need to work out how we construct the UK food surveillance system to make it more consistently used, and interrogate the data in it to give a better overall understanding. The real pressure point on the delivery landscape here at the moment is in local authorities; they are trying very hard to protect front-line services, but there is clearly really significant pressure. We have to find ways of getting more intelligence and risk management benefit out of fewer interventions, and ultimately probably fewer samples.

Lord Rooker: Could I just add to that? We talk about local authorities. There is massive sampling at the four major ports for importing food in this country: Felixstowe, Southampton, Heathrow and Tilbury. Every week, without fail, we and our partners stop food coming into this country that would make people ill. Our prime function is to stop people being ill from food. I read out a list at the March FSA Board that I had culled from just January and February. It included grape soda, pistachio powder, sultanas, figs, okra, beef from Chile, various foodstuffs from Japan, groundnuts, navel oranges and fresh strawberries. There is stuff that we stop and destroy at the port every week. We dealt with 103 food incidents last month, in April this year. It is very true that some are small-some are very small-but while this is going on, we stop a massive amount of imported food coming into the country, because it would make people ill. That has to be placed firmly on the record.

Q521 Neil Parish: I very much welcome that. I have one final slight twist to the question. There has been a big debate about how much the local authorities, the FSA and others-perhaps the restaurants-should be testing food. What about the retailer? There is a big argument about who should be testing what is on the retailer’s shelf to make sure it is what it says it is.

Catherine Brown: I think our position has always been entirely clear and consistent with Defra and pretty much everybody else, from a regulatory point of view. It is the responsibility of the food business operator-every single one of them who makes money from selling products-to make sure that they are safe, and that they are what they say they are.

Q522 Barry Gardiner: We will follow up, because of the exigencies of time and maintaining the quorum, with one further question on whether the review of the FSA was requested by the Government, or whether it was your Board’s idea. What are the terms of reference of the review? Perhaps you could write to us on that.6 Just before we conclude, going back to Greencore, you said you were reluctant to be drawn on the issue of the 5% test for ASDA. Could you simply confirm that the absence of finding equine in other tests does not of itself negate the finding of equine in the test that was carried out by ASDA?

Catherine Brown: Sorry, I do not think I have understood the question.

Barry Gardiner: You will recall that Greencore and ABP did their own sampling, in which they found no equine. I am asking you to confirm that the fact that they found no equine in their sampling of products does in no way negate the fact that ASDA did find equine in its sample.

Catherine Brown: Yes, that is not arguable. That is correct.

Barry Gardiner: Thank you very much. I am very grateful to you for your time this afternoon. The hearing is concluded.

[1] See FSA Supplementary Written Evidence, page Ev 91

[2] See FSA Supplementary Written Evidence, page Ev 91

[3] See FSA Supplementary Written Evidence, page Ev 92

[4] See FSA Supplementary Written Evidence, page Ev 91

[5] See FSA Supplementary Written Evidence, page Ev 92

[6] See FSA Supplementary Written Evidence, page Ev 93

Prepared 15th July 2013