The Government is powerless to impose a ban on meat imports unless beef contaminated with horse meat is found to be a health risk, environment secretary Owen Paterson has said.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said there is no evidence to suggest the horse meat detected poses a danger to humans, but confirmed tests have been ordered on products for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone as animals treated with “bute” are not allowed to in the food chain.
Mr Paterson was speaking after warning that the next set of results on all retailers’ and manufacturers’ processed beef products could reveal further traces of horse meat.
The results, ordered by the FSA, are due on Friday.
Appearing on BBC1’s Sunday Politics show, Mr Paterson repeated his vow to get to the bottom of the scandal, which he has suggested is part of an international criminal conspiracy.
He said: “This week obviously we’ll be talking to counterparts across Europe, because ultimately this is European Union competence.”
But asked if there should be a moratorium on meat imports in the EU, he said: “That is not allowed within the European common market. If they find there is a product which could potentially be injurious to public health, emphatically, I will take the necessary action.”
Asked if he would consider a ban if tests proved there was a food safety risk, he added: “If there’s a threat to public health that is allowed within the rules of the European market.”
He spoke after the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee backed a ban.
Conservative MP Anne McIntosh told BBC Breakfast: “I called for a ban on meat (from the EU) last week. I believe there should be a moratorium on the movement of all meat until such time as we can trace the source of contamination.”
But shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said she thought banning meat imports was a “knee-jerk reaction”.
Frozen foods firm Findus, which has taken its beef lasagne made by French food supplier Comigel off shelves after some were found to have up to 100% horse meat in them, said it was considering legal action against its suppliers as an internal investigation “strongly suggests” that the contamination “was not accidental”.
French consumer safety authorities have said companies from Romania, Cyprus and the Netherlands as well as its own firms were involved. Romanian authorities have confirmed they are investigating while their Dutch counterparts said they are ready to do so if necessary.
Beef products suspected of containing horse meat have also been withdrawn from shops in Ireland, Sweden and France.
Mr Paterson said yesterday retailers had agreed plans to improve their food testing, adding that they held the “ultimate responsibility” for making sure their products did not contain horse meat.
He spoke after attending an emergency summit with bosses from leading supermarkets, trade bodies and the FSA to discuss the scandal.
Mr Paterson added: “It’s a question of either gross incompetence, but as I’ve said publicly and I’ll repeat again, I’m more concerned there’s actually an international criminal conspiracy here and we’ve re ally got to get to the bottom of it.”