Britain yesterday called for DNA testing of processed meat across the European Union, as EU agriculture ministers met in Brussels to discuss the scandal of beef adulterated with horse meat.
Arriving for the emergency summit, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson hinted that investigations by UK food safety authorities may lead to further raids, following action at an abattoir in West Yorkshire and a Welsh processing plant on Tuesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that anyone involved in passing off horse meat as beef should face “the full intervention of the law”, but insisted there was no evidence that products on the shelves of British shops were unsafe to eat.
Mr Paterson said that yesterday’s raids, on the Peter Boddy slaughterhouse in Todmorden, Yorkshire, and meat processing plant Farmbox Meats at Llandre in Aberystwyth, Wales, followed methodical work by the Food Standards Agency, tracing back through the paperwork of companies where horsemeat may be involved. And he added: “There may be more procedures coming forward but I don’t want to prejudice those investigations in public.”
The two plants were temporarily shut down amid claims they supplied and used horse carcasses in burgers and kebabs.
FSA director of operations Andrew Rhodes said its probe had revealed “blatant misleading of consumers” and investigations would continue “until there is nothing left to find”.
But solicitor Aled Owen, representing Farmbox, said the processing firm was co-operating with FSA inquiries and denied any wrong-doing. The company had a legitimate business cutting horsemeat for delivery to Belgium, and wished to express its “dissatisfaction” with “untrue” statements by the FSA, he said.
Ahead of his meeting with counterparts from France, Ireland, Romania, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Mr Paterson said it was now clear that meat contamination was a Europe-wide problem.
No-one had “a clue” until recently that beef products had been adulterated, said the Environment Secretary, adding that it had initially appeared to involve “very small amounts” of horsemeat.
But he said: “What changed the whole thing onto a completely different plane was the revelation from Luxembourg of significant amounts of horse. That has changed the whole argument.”
Mr Paterson added: “I think we have a problem that affects all countries across Europe and we need results fast.
“I want to see DNA testing of processed meat during process and DNA testing on finished products as soon as possible across all member states.
“I want to see a (European Commission) labelling report on processed meat products accelerated very rapidly so that we can get an agreement on origin marking.”
Mr Cameron faced pressure at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons to say whether he would personally eat processed meat products labelled as beef.
But he replied only: “I follow very carefully about what the Food Standards Agency say and what the Food Standards Agency say is that there is nothing unsafe on our shelves.”
Chancellor George Osborne also dodged questions over whether he would eat a spaghetti bolognese ready-meal as he campaigned in the Eastleigh by-election.
Mr Cameron told MPs it was “appalling” and “completely unacceptable” that consumers were buying beef products that turned out to contain horsemeat.
Many of the current issues had come to light due to tougher tests that had been ordered by ministers, he said. And he added: “We have also asked for meaningful tests from retailers and producers and they will be published in full.”
A number of MPs took the opportunity to crack jokes about the issue, with Labour’s Anas Sarwar asking the PM if his comments were “100% bull”.
But Mr Cameron responded: “I do think that this is a serious issue. People are genuinely worried about what they are buying at the supermarket and I really think we have got to get a grip of this rather than make jokes about it.”
Aides later dismissed suggestions that Mr Cameron’s comment indicated he thought Mr Paterson had failed to “get a grip”.
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh raised concerns over the presence in horsemeat of the painkiller bute, which can be harmful to humans.
“I raised the problem of bute-contaminated horsemeat being released into the food chain with Defra ministers last month, yet up until two days ago horses were still not being tested for bute and were being released for human consumption,” said Ms Creagh.
“Parliamentary answers released this week show 9,405 horses were slaughtered in the UK for human consumption abroad last year. We must make sure horsemeat is not contaminated with bute.
“It is not just the food industry that is losing faith with Owen Paterson, the Prime Minister is too.”
MPs are due to discuss the adulteration of meat tomorrow in a debate in the Commons called by the Backbench Business Committee.
And there will be a special meeting on Friday of the EU’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain.
But EU consumer policy commissioner Tonio Borg denied that the scandal had revealed failings in the internal market.
“The EU food safety system is one of the safest in the world,” said Mr Borg.
“Thanks to this system and its capacity for full traceability, national authorities are in a position to investigate this matter so as to find the source of the problem.
“This is no failure of the internal market. This is an incident inside the internal market which has to be taken very seriously in order to restore the confidence of consumers in what they eat.”