Food Contamination - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Tests and traceability

1.  The horsemeat contamination has been a result of fraud and other criminal activity across the EU. While overall contamination of beef products has been small, it has been widespread across EU Member States, and caused much public concern. We agree with the Government that consumers must be able to purchase products confident that the product is what it says on the label. We note that there has been an increase in sales of fresh meat from butchers, coupled with a significant reduction in consumer confidence in the frozen burger and beef ready meal sectors in the UK. We recommend that the Government hold talks with those affected—including farmers, food business operators and retailers—to develop a plan for restoring confidence to this sector before the end of the year. (Paragraph 20)

2.  We request that the Government update us on the results of work streams on trace contamination in meat products in its response to this Report. (Paragraph 22)

3.  The system for food traceability, including the requirement that at every stage in the supply chain operators must keep records of the source of each product and its next destination, has been breached. Retailers and meat processors should have been more vigilant against the risk of deliberate adulteration. Trust is not a sufficient guarantee in a system where meat is traded many times before reaching its final destination. We are concerned about the length of supply chains for processed and frozen beef products and welcome efforts by some retailers to shorten these where possible. (Paragraph 29)

4.  The evidence we received from retailers and food processors in the UK and Ireland suggests a complex, highly organised network of companies trading in and mislabelling frozen and processed meat or meat products in a way that fails to meet specifications and that is fraudulent and illegal. We are concerned at the failure of authorities in both the UK and Ireland to acknowledge the extent of this and to bring prosecutions. We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity. (Paragraph 33)

Horse passport systems

5.  We are surprised at the number of positive test results for the presence of phenylbutazone in horsemeat originating in the UK in the EU-mandated tests. We welcome the Commission's proposal to make mandatory the recording of horse passports in a central national database and to reduce the number of passport-issuing organisations. The evidence we received suggests there are many loopholes in the present system which have allowed horses treated with bute to enter the food system. The positive release system for horses presented for slaughter is welcome and should continue with the cost shared between the Government and industry. Given the uncertainty over the origin of horsemeat in beef products, we would like some assurance that the movement of horses within the UK and between the UK and Republic of Ireland is being properly tracked by relevant authorities. (Paragraph 41)


6.  As already noted, retailers have a clear responsibility to ensure the products they sell are accurately labelled. While some retailers may have been misled, those serving large sectors of the market need to 'up their game' and verify with greater accuracy the assurances of their suppliers. There must be regular, detailed tests on all meat or meat-based ingredients which form part of a processed meat product. We welcome the commitment of some supermarkets to carry out DNA tests on meat products. We recommend that this be made compulsory for large food retailers, with appropriate penalties imposed for those who fail to do so. A summary of these test results should be published on the retailer's website. The cost of this testing must be borne by the relevant companies as part of their due diligence and should not be passed on to the consumer. (Paragraph 46)

7.  The EU proposals set out in their five-point plan are welcome, although still at an early stage and not likely to be discussed until the July Agriculture Council meeting. The proposals should ensure improved sharing of information between Member States which will make the identification of food fraud in complex supply chains easier. We particularly welcome the proposal that penalties for those seeking to defraud consumers should be higher than the economic gain expected from the fraud. However, legislation will not deter fraudsters unless all Member States are prepared to use proportionate enforcement powers to back it up. (Paragraph 48)

8.  We reiterate our previous conclusion that, while Ministers are properly responsible for policy, there was a lack of clarity as a result of the machinery of government changes about where responsibility lay for the response to the horsemeat discovery. This initial confusion in the early days of the discovery was unhelpful and there should be better communication about the FSA's role. Greater clarity about the role of the FSA in major incidents is also needed. The Government should consider whether this might be achieved by reverting to the pre-2010 position enabling the FSA to be one step removed from the Government departments it reports to. This would enable a swifter response by the FSA when a major incident occurs. (Paragraph 58)

9.  Within its current mandate, the FSA must become a more efficient and effective regulator of industry. The FSA must be independent of industry: it must not be, or be seen to be, beholden to industry. The FSA must serve primarily the interest of consumers in having safe and accurately labelled food products. This also means the FSA must be more innovative and vigilant about its testing regime, and it must build better working relationships, where information is shared earlier, with relevant partners in the UK and Europe. (Paragraph 59)

10.  If the FSA is to become a more effective regulator of the food industry, it must be given greater powers in relation to this large and growing sector. It should be given the powers to compel retailers to carry out spot checks and tests where necessary—on both the label and the physical content of the meat—and all test results, whether mandated by the FSA or industry itself, should be reported back to the FSA. In this way the FSA can have a better picture and greater oversight of the industry it is watching over. We do not believe this objective can be met by voluntary agreement alone. (Paragraph 62)

Capacity and food supply networks

11.  Local authorities have a duty to carry out appropriate food testing and must ensure that they do so. We appreciate that each local authority has many objectives and claims on its budget. The Government should be mindful of, and keep an eye on, the likely impact of recent local authority budget cuts on food sampling rates. While we do not recommend setting a statutory minimum sampling level, it is not acceptable that three local authorities have carried out no food sampling at all in the last year. The FSA should more actively oversee the food sampling levels in local authorities and should have the power to compel local authorities to carry out some sampling each year. (Paragraph 72)

12.  80% of food is sold through five supermarkets chains whose food is sourced locally, nationally and internationally. Local authorities must reflect this sourcing pattern in their sampling programme. We recommend a more targeted approach to food sampling, focusing on foods which are likely to be adulterated, even when there is no tip-off about it. (Paragraph 73)

13.  We are concerned about the declining number of public analysts and of public laboratories for carrying out food testing. If they fall much further, food samples will have to be sent abroad for testing. This is likely to result in increased costs and fewer samples being submitted. The Government must keep this under review and ensure there are sufficient, properly trained, public analysts in the UK. (Paragraph 76)

14.  Food supply and production chains are now ever more varied and complex. Those with responsibility for overseeing these systems must adapt their approaches accordingly. The FSA must ensure information is shared with its counterparts in the EU and with the devolved Administrations in the UK. The level of testing which has been undertaken in the last six months is unprecedented and cannot continue. The FSA will only be able to promote public confidence in its role as regulator of the food industry if it builds open communication channels to share information and intelligence with other bodies early on. It should not in future consider it acceptable to wait six weeks for a final confirmation of adulteration from one of our closest neighbours before acting itself. (Paragraph 79)

15.  While our Report does not focus on labelling regulations, any changes to these must be considered in the light of the recent horsemeat contamination incident, respecting the results of public consultation and taking account of the significant reduction in consumer confidence in both supply chains and the ability of the food industry to respond effectively to food scares as a result of the contamination of beef products. These issues should be considered as part of the Government's own review of the integrity and assurance of food supply networks and any decisions on legislation should await the final report on food supply networks. (Paragraph 82)

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Prepared 16 July 2013