Horsemeat: Minister defends government stance on horsemeat issue

Farming Minister David Heath has countered criticism that the horsemeat scandal resulted from reduced testing caused by government cuts.

In a gripping discussion at the International Food & Drink Event (IFE) on Monday between Heath and other food industry officials, the audience heard the delayed discovery of the horse DNA in processed beef products was not the government’s fault.

According to Heath, the fact that the issue was not spotted sooner was because there was no "intelligence" to suggest it was going on. "And that has been the case for the last 10 or 15 years," he said.

"We do have to look again at our systems to see if they’re adequate, but I’m not going to pass the buck to local authorities that do the inspection or the Food Standards Agency (FSA), because I believe they were acting in good faith and doing their job effectively."

Heath noted that after the issue had been discovered in Ireland, it was followed up here in the UK "very, very quickly".

Caterers, retailers and suppliers

The minister also said it was not unreasonable to point out it was up to the retailers, suppliers and caterers to take responsibility for what they "put before consumers". He said it was down to them to ensure labelling was correct, but equally, he said, there needed to be more support for British produce on the market.

He said he stood forcefully behind the quality of British produce, adding, "But where there are people who break the rules, we have to dissociate ourselves from them and I hope the industry feels that just as much as government does."

In a bid to further understand the issue, British Retail Consortium (BRC) deputy director Andrea Martinez-Inchausti was asked if the blame lay with retailers. In response, she said she did not think it was the retailers who had broken the rules.

Martinez-Inchausti said: "First of all, we take our responsibility very seriously. As explained by the Minister, we are responsible for the food we sell under own brand name and, as such, as soon as we were made aware there was a problem, we moved very quickly to rectify it."

The horsemeat was not in any products on purpose, Martinez-Inchausti explained, as there were an "enormous number of controls" there to stop such a thing happening. She said it was criminal activity and the BRC was not able to avoid it.

Fraud

Melanie Leech, director of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), agreed with Martinez-Inchausti that it was a case of fraud. She explained: "Systems are always open to fraud. You do your best to combat fraud and we will need to try to do even better, but the way to tackle that is through an intelligence-led approach, managing robust systems."

Leech added that things needed to be done better. Even though the industry had one of the most robust systems in the world, which is how British produce can be promoted abroad, she said things needed to be done better still.

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