Extensive testing of processed and frozen beef products sold in the UK since January has revealed that the horse meat contamination was limited to a relatively small number of products with more than 99% of those tested found free of horse DNA. Tests across EU Member States found 4.66% of products tested contained over 1% horse DNA.
Consumer confidence in the frozen and processed meat sector has fallen, and the Government should work with industry and farmers to rectify this.
The evidence suggests that the contamination was a result of fraud by elements of the food industry seeking to make a profit and able to do so despite food traceability requirements. It is disappointing, six months on, that no prosecutions have been brought in either the UK or in Ireland, where the horse meat contamination was first identified. We support an EU proposal that penalties imposed for food fraud should be higher than the expected gains from this.
In separate EU-mandated tests for the presence of phenylbutazone (bute) in horses slaughtered for human consumption, the UK had the largest number of positive results. This is a cause for concern. There are too many loopholes in the present system of issuing horse passports. The Government must work with the EU to ensure the speedy introduction of a single national database for the issuing of horse passports in every Member State. We recommend that the recently introduced system for testing for the presence of bute before the horse carcass is released into the food chain be continued, with government and industry sharing the cost.
Retailers should have been more vigilant against the risks of adulteration, especially where meat products are traded many times. Consumer confidence would be boosted by shorter supply chains.
Large retailers, who sell much of the food we eat, should carry out regular DNA tests on meat and meat-based ingredients which form part of processed of frozen meat products. The results should be reported to the Food Standards Agency and a summary should be published on the retailer's website. The additional cost of this testing should be borne by retailers and not passed on to consumers.
There has been a lack of clarity about the responsibility of the FSA in this incident. This must be rectified. The Government should consider whether this might be achieved by reversing the machinery of government changes made in 2010 and allowing the FSA to be one step removed from the two government departments it reports to. This would enable a swifter response when major incidents occur. There should also be better communication about the role of the FSA.
The FSA should ensure it is an effective regulator, serving the interests of consumers in ensuring safe and accurately labelled food. It should not be, or be seen to be, beholden to industry. To this end it must be given powers to compel industry to carry out food testing when needed.
The FSA should also create improved communication channels with the devolved administrations and within the EU with those Member Statesfor example Irelandwho are significant trading partners. It must be more innovative in its testing and vigilant in ensuring all local councils carry out food sampling regularly.
Local authorities are responsible for food sampling and should a adopt a more targeted approach, testing food products which are likely to be contaminated, even if there is no intelligence to suggest it. There is significant variation in food sampling levels across local authorities. It is not acceptable for any local authority to have carried out no food sampling for more than a year. The Government should be mindful of the impact of local authority budget cuts and seek to ensure that they do not have a negative impact on food sampling.
We are also concerned about the decline in the number of public analysts who carry out tests and of the public laboratories in which they work. The Government should keep this under review and ensure there are sufficient numbers of properly trained public analysts in the UK.
We welcome the Government's decision to carry out a review of the integrity and assurance of food supply networks.