Scottish Rural Affairs Minister comments on horsemeat situation

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A statement from Rural Affairs Minister Richard Lochhead

I would like to update Parliament on recent developments with regard to horsemeat and food fraud, and on Scotland’s response.

As a result of the revelation that horse meat has been found in mislabelled processed beef products in Europe, consumer confidence has been severely dented and shockwaves have been sent through the food industry.

It is wholly unacceptable that consumers have been buying products labelled beef, which turn out to contain horsemeat.

The mislabelling of food products through deliberate and illegal meat substitution will not be tolerated.  It is the clear responsibility of those who supply and sell food to make sure that consumers are not misled. 

Europe’s food industry now faces the massive challenge of rebuilding trust in their products.  There are now at least a dozen countries affected.

It’s therefore likely there will be further revelations across Europe in the coming weeks and months, as exemplified by last night’s announcement by Nestle. 

And that’s why the Scottish Government has been calling for strong action at a European level.

That’s now happening with European governments, enforcement authorities and food industries taking the necessary action to get to the bottom of this issue.

It’s important to note that in Scotland there is no slaughtering of horses for human consumption, and no food manufacturing firm has been implicated in the horse meat scandal and illegal substitution of meat.  

Indeed, all the evidence points to the affected meat originating from outwith Scotland.

It’s also important to note that, to date, this is an issue of food fraud, with no evidence of any implications for human health.  

FSA Scotland and the Scottish Government are acting to prevent horse meat entering our food chain, and to reassure consumers. 

As Parliament will be aware, in Scotland, the Food Standards Agency answers to Scottish Ministers although it remains part of the UK FSA.  And the FSA in Scotland is responsible for food labelling. 

South of the border, Whitehall hived off aspects of labelling and standards to DEFRA.

Across the UK, the FSA put in place an action plan after being notified on 14 January by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of their survey of horse and pig DNA in frozen burgers.

This Tesco product had also been on sale throughout the UK, including in Scotland.  Two plants in the Republic of Ireland and one in England were implicated in the survey.

The affected retailers immediately withdrew potentially affected products from sale.

Parliament will also be aware that one of the issues that has been identified as part of this investigation is that products have been withdrawn due to trace cross-over of pork into beef products. 

This is more likely to be due to poor practice than fraudulent behaviour, but this remains something that the industry has to take very seriously.

There are now three strands of surveillance underway, one of which was initiated in Scotland.

Firstly, a robust UK wide authenticity survey where 28 local authorities are taking samples of beef products from all parts of the food chain. Two councils in Scotland are participating.  The results of this will be published in March.

Secondly, local authorities are carrying out inspections visits to all 229 approved meat processing premises and 29 cold stores in Scotland – I asked the FSA to instigate these inspections on 24th January and we were the first part of the UK to do this.

60% of these inspections have already started, with 47% completed to date.  No issues have been detected.  The vast majority of the remainder are due to be completed by the end of this week and the whole exercise will be completed by next Friday.

Thirdly, the food industry was instructed by the FSA to test all processed beef products for the presence of horse DNA, and to share the results with the FSA.  

Friday’s testing announcement

Last Friday, across the UK, the food industry published the first set of results.

There were 2501 results published and 2472 of these (almost 99%) were negative for the presence of horse DNA at or above the level of 1%.

The FSA will publish a further update this coming Friday.

No new products were affected.  The positive results all relate to seven products which have already been reported and where appropriate action has been taken to remove relevant products from sale and notify consumers.

Of course, since Friday, there have been further product withdrawals.

Where products have been found to contain horse DNA, they have been tested for the presence of veterinary drug phenyl-butazone known as Bute. All of the tests on food for this drug have come back negative so far.

Since 30 January, the FSA has been testing 100% of horse carcasses for bute.  There is no horse meat processing in Scotland.  

Bute is not allowed to enter the food chain; however, in the unlikely event that people have eaten products which contain contaminated horse meat, the risk of damage to health is very low.

Sir Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, said that the samples found were “…still at a level many hundred times lower than those previously used in humans on a daily basis.”

Public Sector

We have also taken steps to check no horse meat is present in the food provided to our schools, hospitals and prisons. 

Assurances have been sought across all those who supply food to the public sector in Scotland. 

There is significant testing and tracing going on throughout public sector providers, as it is throughout all those who sell or manufacture food in the UK.

To date, there is no evidence of horse meat in public sector catering in Scotland.

Sustainably produced food and drink is a high priority for Scotland.  Food and drink contracts are awarded in a way which balances price and quality issues before awarding a contract.

It is not necessarily the lowest price that wins, quality is vitally important

As well as taking these immediate actions we are also turning our attention to the future.  But so must others. 

Rules on the composition and labelling of foods are in the main set at a European level.  

Due to the strong EU component of this, I have asked for a meeting with Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Borg to stress the need for safe and effective controls to be available to us at a national level.  In the meantime, last week’s meeting of EU Ministers at last set out plans to accelerate further labelling measures.

Whilst enforcement of European legislation is within the competence of this Parliament, it needs a strong and strategic voice in Europe to co-ordinate action.

European negotiations

I have long argued for a stronger UK line on labelling in European negotiations, having written to both Hilary Benn and Caroline Spelman over the years pressing for quicker action and stronger legislation.

Action in Scotland

I will continue to raise these issues with current DEFRA Ministers.

– Indeed, I have been in regular contact with ministerial colleagues in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in recent weeks.

– I have also discussed the issue with retailers and the food industry numerous times and with Scotland’s farmers and producers.

– Yesterday, I was in London with the Secretary of State, Owen Patterson, meeting the chief executives of most of the major retailers and food service sector.

And tomorrow I will host another industry stakeholder meeting in Edinburgh with the Public Health Minister Michael Matheson with whom I have been working closely in recent weeks.

New food body consultation

The Minister is also taking forward our proposal for a stand-alone Food Standards body in Scotland.

The consultation on the new body is imminent and Ministers are currently considering the implications of the horse meat scandal for that process.

The Minister is seeking the opportunity to make a statement to Parliament next week.

I can also inform Parliament that the Minister will be establishing an expert group to advise on any  changes required to the FSA in Scotland ahead of the creation of the new food body.   

However, no matter how far we go, legislation and enforcement is only a small part of the picture.

Responsibility lies with those who produce, manufacture and sell food.  There is a clear need for the food sector to restore consumer confidence.

With a greater awareness of the complexity of food supply chains causing such concern, it is clear that the people of Scotland are now taking an even closer interest in where their food comes from.

Scotch Brand

There is clear evidence that people are looking for provenance and the Scotch brand which is associated with traceability and quality.

Some local butchers are reporting sales up by more than a fifth since this crisis started.  Meat processing companies are also reporting increased orders for Scotch beef.

I urge consumers to seek out the Scotch label!

Whilst we can’t be complacent on enforcement and strong standards, we must do all we can to promote and protect our world renowned Scottish Brands – particularly beef.

Fortunately, we do not have the complex sometimes murky web of supply chains stretching across Europe.

We have farmers with traceability systems for their meat through the Scotch label, and that’s why many customers are realising they can trust the Scotch label when buying meat.

As we continue to urge the retailers and the food industry to source closer to home and shorten supply chains, we need to be ready to provide the products they require.

So whilst the Public Health Minister will shortly announce an expert group to advise on the FSA in Scotland, I will shortly announce an expert group to take forward the Scottish food industry’s work on traceability and provenance.

Specifically, I am asking Quality Meat Scotland to explore how we can extend the principles behind the Scotch label and assurance schemes to the processing sector. 

And to strengthen the Scotch label and boost consumer confidence, I announced last week £1 million for developing new markets for beef, lamb and pork, and the marketing of the Scotch Brands.

Presiding Officer, consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label.

When this issue first came to light in Ireland, the Scottish Government and the FSA in Scotland took urgent action and swiftly implemented additional inspections in meat processing plants.

Scotland was the first part of the UK to order these tests and this complements the new EU-wide meat testing regime which was agreed following an EU meeting in Brussels last week.

The horse meat scandal has undermined consumer trust in some parts of the food industry.

But it may be a watershed moment in how people think about food.  

There is an absolute need for every step of the food chain to take responsibility for the food it produces and to ensure that Scottish consumers can have total confidence that what they buy is what it says on the label.