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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 946-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
Contamination of Beef Products
Wednesday 30 January 2013
The Rt Hon Lord Jeff Rooker and Catherine Brown
Trish Twohig and Tim Smith
David Heath MP, Anna Soubry MP and Steve Wearne
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 202
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
on Wednesday 30 January 2013
Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)
Mrs Mary Glindon
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: The Rt Hon Lord Jeff Rooker, Chair, Food Standards Agency, and Catherine Brown, Chief Executive, Food Standards Agency, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome. May I ask you to introduce yourselves for the purposes of the record, first of all?
Lord Rooker: Jeff Rooker, Member of the other place, Chair of the Food Standards Agency board.
Catherine Brown: I am Catherine Brown and I am Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency. I have a very little bit of deafness, so perhaps people could speak up.
Q2 Chair: We will endeavour to make ourselves heard. First of all, can I welcome you both? Thank you very much indeed for being here and participating in our inquiry into the contamination of beef products. Could you just explain at the outset what the role of the FSA is in food safety and food hygiene?
Lord Rooker: The role on food safety is exclusively for the Food Standards Agency. We operate the food safety legislation throughout the UK. That is our role; that is our prime function. We have done other things in the past but, in respect of food safety, all the food safety legislation is operated by us. As you know, we are a Government department, a nonministerial department, so we control policy and enforcement, and we do it through the 434 local authorities and the border inspection posts. As far as the meat industry is concerned, we do it ourselves. Half of the staff of the FSA work in meat plants, cutting plants and abattoirs throughout the United Kingdom. We work through the devolved administrations. DARD in Northern Ireland does certain functions on our behalf.
The food safety aspects of food, whether it is enforcement or contamination-the actual safety of food for human consumption and animal feed as well-are exclusively a matter for us. There are other matters relating to diet and nutrition, food composition, countryoforigin labelling and authenticity that are not our function in England.
That encapsulates it. There were some changes in 2010. We can explain those if you require, but that is broadly the way it would be delineated.
Q3 Chair: To which department does the Agency report?
Lord Rooker: We do not report to a department. We report to Parliament through four health Ministers. That is the way we were set up. We report to the Westminster Parliament, you, through the Select Committees. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we report to the Administrations or the Parliaments there through the relevant health Ministers. We have working relations with other Government departments in the devolved Administrations, as indeed we do in the Westminster village for English departments.
Q4 Chair: Let me put the question slightly differently. To whom are you accountable for your actions as Chairman and Chief Executive?
Lord Rooker: From my point of view as Chair, I went through the Health Select Committee appointments process so, to that extent, there was that cover. If I am due to be dismissed, as it were, then the legislation requires the four health Ministers to deal with the issue. The accountability process is the same as for the other 19 nonministerial departments. We are not unusual in that sense. The one thing that makes us unusual is our openness and our transparency.
Q5 Chair: How do you think that is particularly open and transparent?
Lord Rooker: First of all, I am assuming that you watched, or have watched since, our open policy board meeting last week, when we actually discussed this issue, because we have an ongoing major incident issue and, therefore, the board felt that, on behalf of the public, they wanted to ask some questions. Obviously they could not go into a lot of detail last Tuesday. All our discussions on policy are done in the open, transmitted live. There are no discussions behind closed doors by the board. That is more open and transparent than any other Whitehall department. That is the thing that gives us our credibility, in respect of helping in the last 12 years to rebuild confidence in British food.
Q6 Chair: How do you account for your actions? Do you consider yourselves an independent department in your own right?
Lord Rooker: No, we are not. We are part of the Government. We are a Government department funded by the Treasury. As I say, we are one of 19 or 20 nonministerial departments. We answer to Parliament; we are subject to parliamentary questions; we are subject to debates on all our issues. There are no nogo areas. The answers to Parliament, though, are given and presented by the Health department ministers, as far as England is concerned.
Q7 Chair: What is your relationship, as an agency, with the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
Lord Rooker: A good working relationship between three Government departments. All the staff are civil servants. They all work for the same Government. We share some issues; in other issues, we are independent in the sense that we create the policy and carry out our enforcement. We negotiate in Brussels on behalf of the UK Government. Until the changes in 2010, we were the lead department on the Food Information Regulations and, when we went to Brussels, we operated as the UK Government, rather than just us as a department.
Q8 Thomas Docherty: Forgive me, Lord Rooker. I do not think you quite heard the Chairman’s question. It was: whom are you accountable to? What you answered was how you were appointed. How are you and the Chief Executive held to account to Parliament?
Lord Rooker: Me personally to the board and to Parliament.
Q9 Thomas Docherty: But how?
Lord Rooker: Questions, Select Committees. The Health Select Committee would be the main Committee that we would be accountable to. I have kept them informed throughout the last four years of lots of issues that are relevant to their overseeing of us. Our annual report, our strategy statements, our business plan, the chief scientist’s plan-we keep them informed. We are available to be probed and questioned. I spent the first two years in the post trying to get the Select Committee to give us the onceover and the NAO to give us the onceover.
As far as the Chief Executive is concerned, she is accountable to the board.
Q10 Thomas Docherty: Forgive me; there is no difference between the set of tasks you just described and the Chairman of Tesco, Sainsbury’s or any other body. You are a UK citizen; you are therefore subject to being called before Parliament to answer questions. My specific question is: how are you accountable, not how are you questioned? Once you are in post, if Parliament feels that the board-and I am not accusing you, sir, of falling below standards-is falling below standards, how are you held to account for that?
Lord Rooker: The four health Ministers would meet and decide to remove me.
Thomas Docherty: They can do that.
Lord Rooker: Yes. The Food Standards Act 1999 sets out the whole procedure for appointment and removal of the board, the Chair and individual members.
Q11 Thomas Docherty: That would be the mechanism: the health Ministers, and then the health Ministers are, in turn, accountable for that decision to Parliament.
Lord Rooker: Absolutely, yes. I am sorry if I misunderstood.
Q12 Chair: No; we are grateful. On the particular route of the contaminated beef products in this case, where did the contaminated products originate and at what stage was the contaminated process introduced into the food chain?
Catherine Brown: Shall I take that one? There are two sets of contamination, as you know. There is the incidence of gross contamination at the Silvercrest plant and there are also incidents of trace contamination at the three plants involved, the two in Ireland and one in this country. We obviously have an interest in, and we need to make sure we get to the bottom of, the situation as regards food that is produced in this country but also food that is sold in this country. In terms of the food that is produced in this country, we have been working closely with the environmental health officers and the trading standards officers for the relevant authority for Dalepak, which is the producer in this country. It obviously is a live investigation and we are anxious to make sure that we get properly to the bottom of things, before we specify in the middle of an investigation and then have to change our minds when we get to the bottom of it.
In terms of the Dalepak situation, we believe that we have identified the ingredient that is likely to have caused the trace contamination in the UKproduced product, but we are now following that through and validating that. As soon as we can be quite sure, we will obviously say what it is.
In terms of the Irish production investigation, obviously that is within the jurisdiction of the Republic of Ireland. They have been very busy and intensely involved in investigating that issue in production. They have now declared that they are sure where it came from, and they are sure it came from a Polish filler product, which should have been all beef but, in this case, the Polish filler product transpired to be a mixture of beef and horse offcuts. We will obviously need to make sure that we get absolutely to the bottom, to our satisfaction, of that aspect around what food was produced elsewhere but has been sold to UK citizens. We have work still to do with the Irish in feeling absolutely confident.
Q13 Chair: There were stories that some of the materials may have come from nonEU countries. Have there been any materials from nonEU countries in this contamination process, to your knowledge?
Catherine Brown: No. The suspected products, at the moment, are of EU origin.
Q14 Chair: You mentioned the Polish origin, potentially, of some of the products. I understand that any EU country exporting animal or meat products has to check and test them before they are exported. If it emerges that Poland possibly did not conduct all the checks before export they should have done, would you consider taking a legal action against Poland? Would it fall to you or would it fall to one of the departments to do so?
Catherine Brown: I think all of the member states of the EU are responsible for making sure they have controls in place to ensure anything that travels around the EU is appropriately controlled and of the right quality. We are in touch with the Polish authorities and we have asked them to specify-to go and check everywhere that this suspect ingredient has gone, so that we can then follow it through. They are carrying out their own checks, clearly, on what has happened at the Polish end. We have also given some thought to and used the intelligence that we have available to us informally to identify some places where it might have gone, in our view, and we are following up from that end as well. We are asking any of the plants in this country where we have reason to believe it might have gone whether they have had any; we are asking the Polish company and the Polish authorities to tell us, exhaustively, where it has gone. At this point, I would not want to rule out or in any prosecutions of anybody. Everything is still very much on the table, I think.
Q15 Iain McKenzie: I want to go a wee bit back, Ms Brown, in the production process. You talk about a filler, and the filler contains the horse meat. Is that filler added at the first stage of when the beef is introduced? Does it come into the factories already together? How does the process operate?
Catherine Brown: As I say, up until now, it is in the Irish jurisdiction and they have been leading on it. In the discussions I have had with the Irish Chief Executive, what has been described to me is blocks of frozen mixed, as it transpired, meat coming in. They have sampled those blocks through a coring mechanism.
Q16 Iain McKenzie: Where did these blocks of frozen meat originate from? Were they mixed at the point of origin in Poland?
Catherine Brown: Certainly at the point that it had arrived.
Q17 Iain McKenzie: If they come in as such, and we have already heard from Lord Rooker that you do not oversee countryoforigin labelling, etc., what were they labelled as?
Catherine Brown: We have not checked this yet and, as I say, there are lots of things we want to follow through, now that the Republic of Ireland investigation has passed its peak intensity. We will be going through a lot of detail with them, so I do not have all of the details that we would want yet on exactly the detail of what has come from Poland, what has been labelled and how sure you can be that everything was in there from Poland. All of those things are still in scope for our investigation.
Q18 Chair: There does seem to have been a breakdown in traceability, doesn’t there?
Catherine Brown: I have seen that said, but I do not think we can clear that there is a breakdown in traceability yet, because as we are tracing everything, it is still tracing back. At the moment, nobody is saying there is some bit where the chain breaks. It may be that, as we keep going through and keep going through-and this is why it does take a while-at any point it could happen, but I do not think it has happened yet.
Q19 Iain McKenzie: An additional question on the origin in Poland: was this a new supplier or was it an established supplier that, maybe if we go further back in the process, has changed their supplier?
Catherine Brown: Yes, that is absolutely exactly in scope of the investigation. This supplier had been used for a year, so one of the things the Polish authorities are now investigating is if that means that this filler is likely to have been coming in with this kind of problem for a year, or if it is likely that, just as you asked, something changed at the Polish end.
Q20 Iain McKenzie: I would imagine that, if you took on a supplier and they were only with you a year, you would be constantly checking them for the confidence factor in what they were supplying.
Lord Rooker: Could I just interject there? We have to remember Poland is a member of the EU. We are not talking about a third country here, where the checks on imports are completely different. Poland was supplying another member state, to the best of our knowledge, not the UK. As the Chief Executive said, we are still checking as to whether they were supplying anyone in the United Kingdom, who we are responsible for. All your questions have been about the meat coming from Poland to the Republic of Ireland, but of course we would have no locus in that. The Government of the Republic would be checking that, but it would be meat coming from another member state. It is not a third country. The rules of labelling and documentation are different once you have got a single market operating.
Q21 Iain McKenzie: I think you would agree, in any procurement process, regardless of the time you have been involved with these suppliers, you would have been monitoring that contract.
Lord Rooker: You and I and any reasonable person would expect the companies concerned and the regulatory authorities to be doing that, yes.
Q22 Neil Parish: Good afternoon. In your dialogue with the FSA of Ireland, did they say whether they discovered the contamination in a routine test or was it as a result of some intelligence that they should look at that particular processing plant?
Catherine Brown: I have spoken to the Chief Executive of the FSAI about this question, and he informs me that it was a purely routine and random sample.
Q23 Neil Parish: When did the FSA of Ireland alert you to their findings?
Catherine Brown: They alerted us on the 14th.
Neil Parish: 14 January?
Catherine Brown: 14 January, sorry. They first talked to us at the end of November, and said they were doing some work developing authenticity methods, thinking about having a survey. We said, "Fine; we’d like to collaborate with you on that." On 10 January, they told us that they had gone ahead and done some tests, and they were waiting for their results. On 14 January, they told us they had found some contamination.
Q24 Neil Parish: Is your working relationship with the FSA of Ireland a close one normally, or was this a oneoff, or what?
Catherine Brown: Obviously we do need to work closely and collaboratively with the FSA of Ireland, because we have the border and producers supplying across that border. We have a written protocol on how we collaborate with them. I have spoken, as I say, to the Chief Executive. He is saying we have extremely good relationships. Everything is very good. We have a protocol specifically for incident management, signed in 2010, which says both parties will inform each other, as soon as they have any reason to be concerned, of anything that may be of risk becoming an incident.
Q25 Neil Parish: The Republic of Ireland is a big exporter of beef anyway and beef products, so there would be a lot of trade between us and Ireland. Surely there is that need for a close relationship, but you are happy that that relationship is close enough.
Catherine Brown: We are in the middle of the investigation. One of the things that will happen, once we have concluded the investigation and once we have shared fully, and therefore got reassured about their investigation, is we will do a lessonslearned exercise and explore what we might do differently and what we might take from this. It may be that there is some scope for even closer liaison between us.
Lord Rooker: One of which is the fact that they did not tell us until the day before they announced it and yet, weeks before, they must have known what they were finding. They did not tell us.
Q26 Neil Parish: I understand from Ms Brown’s comments that they informed you back in December that they were starting to do these tests and they were looking at certain products, and yet it was not until the middle of January that they informed you of their findings. Are you saying, Lord Rooker, that they probably knew about this before they informed you?
Lord Rooker: They did two sets of tests, for a start. They told us in November. They received the first results at the end of November and they collected further samples for testing in midDecember. Quite clearly there was a process going on. The protocol that was signed is absolutely clear, as the Chief Executive has said: we have an agreement that we will discuss things and "notify at the earliest opportunity details of any food incident or potential food incident that may affect other or both jurisdictions". We were told on 14 January that they had found horse meat contamination. That is the fact of the situation.
Q27 Neil Parish: Therefore, I can conclude from that statement that the cooperation and the link between you and the FSA of Ireland are not close enough, for one reason or another.
Catherine Brown: I think that they had definite confirmation on 10 January.
Neil Parish: Lord Rooker was nodding at that moment. Carry on.
Catherine Brown: They had definite confirmation on 10 January. They may have had their preliminary results in December, but perhaps the significance of those results did not strike them. They were confirmed on 10 January and they told us on the 14th. As I think we both acknowledge, we need to work on getting to the bottom of whether there is more that could be done.
Lord Rooker: Just to add to that, Neil, so there is no confusion, the situation in the island of Ireland is different from the rest of GB. We have the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland, which is part of our UK operation. There is the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, but there is an allisland food safety organisation born out of the Good Friday Agreement. There is an allisland food safety authority, part of the Good Friday Agreement, which is very keenly operated on both sides of the border, in terms of transfers of food, staff and everything else. There is that arrangement there that does not occur elsewhere in GB.
Q28 Neil Parish: To be absolutely clear then, it was the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that alerted you to the horse meat and the pig meat in burgers. It was not the allisland organisation.
Lord Rooker: Correct.
Q29 Neil Parish: Do you know whether they had greater knowledge of what was happening in the Republic than the allisland food standards agency?
Lord Rooker: It is not in the timeline that we have been given.
Q30 Neil Parish: My next question really is about Silvercrest Foods’ suspension of all products. Should Dalepak and Liffey Foods have done the same, in your opinion?
Catherine Brown: We need to draw a distinction between the trace elements, for which I think there was one of 0.3%, but the other eight were of 0.1% or less, which could reasonably have come, and in fact investigations suggest did come, from a small contamination of an ingredient. It could be a seasoning; it could be any sort of ingredient. That is quite a different thing from 18% of the patty being horse, which has clearly come from a lump of horse meat. I do not think it is unreasonable for them to have approached it slightly differently.
Q31 Neil Parish: The only thing is that, although the percentage of horse meat was by far the highest, certainly in the Tesco burgers, a lot of the beef burgers did contain a very small amount of pork fat or whatever, pork DNA. Naturally, for some parts of our society, especially on religious grounds, this could actually be almost a bigger issue than the horse meat itself. What is your position regarding that?
Catherine Brown: Our position is that every ingredient intentionally put into a food product, no matter how tiny the amount, has to be on the label. However, if it is unintentionally put into the product, then the company has to have taken steps and due diligence to have stopped that happening. Clearly, they cannot have labelled it because they did not know it was there.
For people who are observant and want to eat kosher or halal products, we recommend using a certified kosher or halal producer. This was product that was put out for the general population, so that is the kind of response. It will be very interesting to see, when we do the wider surveillance, what proportion of this very low level of trace contamination we find. The industry will need to think very carefully about the way that they look at cleaning because, in this case, some of this will be carryover, because it has been produced in a plant that is producing a set of products made from one animal and then moves on to a set of products made from another. There will be issues around carryover and tolerance levels that have to be explored and established.
Q32 Neil Parish: Are you saying that there is a level of tolerance that you would accept and the public should accept, like 0.01%, or what?
Catherine Brown: That is exactly the issue that we need to grapple with and we are doing that. This is an issue of food composition and labelling policy, so it is something that we are working very closely with Defra on, but it is a principle, for example, that applies in the GM environment and it is a principle that we are interested in exploring in the allergenbased environment as well. It is something that needs to be explored and worked out.
Q33 Chair: Could I just ask about the timeframe? I understand that the FSA of Ireland did alert FSA UK about their tests in November-that they were undertaking the tests. Is that correct?
Catherine Brown: They told us in November that they were developing methods, because this is a new method that has been used. On 23 November, they told us they were developing authenticity methods and considering a survey. We offered to assist with that. On 10 January, they said, "That survey we mentioned, we are doing it. We have undertaken some checks. We will keep you informed of the results." On 14 January, they told us that they had found the contamination.
Q34 Chair: Do you use the same method of testing yourself? Is this a new method of DNA testing? Do you use that form of testing yourselves?
Catherine Brown: They have not yet disclosed the full details of the methodology that they have used but, no; it is not a standard accredited methodology. At the moment, we do not think it is a standard accredited methodology that we commonly use. However, they do tell me that it is a methodology that is used by industry in big burger plants in the States and Canada. It is not that it is an untried methodology and, indeed, the labs that they have used are accredited laboratories. However, it is not an accredited test.
Q35 Chair: If you do not use those tests, how do we know that the FSA UK would have picked up the contamination if the FSA of Ireland had not?
Catherine Brown: Well, it is an interesting thing. We have accredited tests, and we have a mixture of DNA and other tests that we could use. We have tests available so that, had we tested and had there been the wrong stuff there, we would have found it. The real issue is that we would not have tested, because our surveillance approach is riskbased and largely intelligenceled. This year, we are focusing on formaldehyde in kitchenware, contamination of baby milk, false vodka that makes you go blind or kills you, and E. coli in sprouted seeds, amongst others. What we do is we say, "What things should we test for because we are worried about them and have reason to think they might be there?" It is not that we do not have a test that could find horse meat or horse DNA in beef products; it is that we had no intelligence to lead us to believe that it would have been a thing to do.
Lord Rooker: The last time the Food Standards Agency tested for horse meat, we did it on the basis of evidence and intelligence that we had received that caused us to do the checks and tests, back in 2003. Some 168 samples were taken of salamitype meat products and horse meat was found in one of them. We did test for horse meat, but you have to know what you are testing for. This is why, as Catherine said, there are a lot of unanswered questions for our Irish colleagues.
Q36 Chair: Hang on a minute. I am speaking as a UK consumer. You do not do the tests. You do not have the methodology. You only base on evidence. How do we know that this horse meat has not been in these burgers for months, if not years?
Catherine Brown: We do have a methodology and we do have a significant programme of riskbased surveillance, but we had not identified horse meat in burgers as a likely significant risk in this country. That is why I am saying it is very important now that we get to the bottom of the Polish connection and the Irish investigation: it is possible that these burgers have been on sale in this country. The probable limit of possibility, if that is an existing concept, is a year, because this supplier has been supplying for a year. Therefore, when the Polish get to the bottom of this, we will hope to know whether it is likely that this has been going on for a year.
Lord Rooker: Over 80,000 food samples were taken last year; 20,000 of them were broken down for compositional food samples and tested, which is done with our colleagues in local government and border inspection posts. Thousands of food checks are taken. Some are routine surveillance. Many of them are based, as you have heard from the Chief Executive, on worries we have because we have some intelligence that things might be wrong. It just so happens in this case it is a fact that we did not have any intelligence, any hints or any notification that there might be horse meat in products on sale in the UK. Otherwise, we would have gone to look for it, because the last time we did get evidence of that kind of thing, we did do that and that is the way we operate.
Q37 Barry Gardiner: Last year, you tested 800 samples of meat. None of them were tested for horse meat. Now, you say the last time you tested for horse meat was in 2003, when you had credible evidence that there might be a problem. You have already indicated to those people who are raking off the vodka industry that this year is not a good year to start doing that, and actually they might transfer their activities to somewhere else. But was it not something you should have picked up on? In a time of recession, people are having cheap meat. This is the time when that might be something that you would have gone in for. To simply say, "Hey, we do a lot of testing," is not really an adequate response, is it?
Catherine Brown: I think what we are saying is we do a constant dynamic risk assessment. The point you are making around whether there is a greater risk of fraud and adulteration is in our risk register. That is what we have said. We have said there is a greater risk of fraud and adulteration, because of exactly the situation you describe.
Q38 Barry Gardiner: You did not test last year, in 800 meat tests, for the very thing that one might have thought was the most obvious adulteration.
Catherine Brown: I do not think one would have thought it was the most obvious adulteration. Some of the adulterations that we think are more obvious would be around rustled meat that had been illegally slaughtered.
Q39 Barry Gardiner: Did you test for that?
Catherine Brown: We are doing a lot of work on that.
Q40 Barry Gardiner: Did you test for that in the 800 samples that you tested?
Catherine Brown: The 800 samples are local authority samples, so they are not tests that we have directly done ourselves. What you do is you identify where the risk is and then you work out the thing you can do to try to work out whether that risk is happening.
Q41 Chair: Could we just stop a minute? Lord Rooker just said you do 800 tests a year. You have just said, as Chief Executive, you do not do the tests; the local authorities do the tests. Who does the tests?
Catherine Brown: We, the community who are working together to safeguard public health and food issues, do 800 tests. Actually, it is not one organisation doing 800 tests; it is local authorities around the country and trading standards officers.
Q42 Barry Gardiner: To what standards? Are they doing it to your bidding? You have just said that, this year, you are going to be focusing on contaminated vodka. Does that mean that every food standards authority around the country is going to be going out, taking a bottle of vodka off the shelves and testing it?
Catherine Brown: Not necessarily. What it means is we, jointly with Defra, the devolved administrations and public analysts, get together and say, "What are we worried about? What should be on the list of things that are in our strategy for testing this year?" We come up with a list and then we say to local authorities, "If you want to do any of this testing, we will give you some money, so do ask us for some money to help you do this testing," and then they do it.
Q43 Barry Gardiner: That is rather haphazard, is it not? It is saying, "Here is a smorgasbord. Choose what you like off it and, if you do, we will give you some money."
Catherine Brown: I would not say it is haphazard. I would say we set a strategic framework, but we then enable them to use local intelligence to test for things that are most relevant.
Q44 Barry Gardiner: The strategic framework set in Ireland by the FSAI was one that used DNA testing.
Catherine Brown: Yes, and we use DNA testing.
Q45 Dan Rogerson: There are two sets of issues here. The public will immediately worry about contamination in terms of a health risk, and then there is this second set, which is this point we have been exploring, about things that are safe to eat but for which there is a labelling issue effectively. It is legal for people to consume it.
Lord Rooker: It is legal and safe, yes.
Q46 Dan Rogerson: Yes, but it is a labelling issue. You are talking about your risk register. Just out of interest, how do you update that with the sorts of products that are most likely to be at risk? We are talking about meat here. What other things might come into this where there is a potential risk from the cost pressures that Mr Gardiner is talking about?
Lord Rooker: Where we are working across Government, the particular answer to your question-and I am not dodging it-is not really for us, because it is not a food safety issue.
Q47 Dan Rogerson: That is what we are here to find out, so that is useful for us to know. Whose responsibility is it then?
Catherine Brown: We put together the surveillance plan jointly with Defra, with the devolved administrations, with public analysts and with the research community. All the people who have some intelligence and who might help us to get the best set of priorities come together and put together that overall plan.
Dan Rogerson: That is something for us to come back to Defra with. Thank you very much.
Q48 Barry Gardiner: Can I just come back to the DNA issue? The DNA issue here is that FSAI does a DNA test to a 0.1% threshold. You do not, do you?
Catherine Brown: This is an unvalidated test. When we do tests, we do validated tests that stand up in court, if we want to take enforcement action. When we see the details of their test, then we will know whether it is a good or better test, in which case we will look to embrace it or not.
Q49 Barry Gardiner: You use the ELISA test, do you not-the enzyme linked immunosorbent assays? That cannot test meat to the level of 0.1%, and the DNA test of the FSAI does.
Catherine Brown: We also use DNA tests, but none of the tests that we use would claim to be able to get to below 0.1%, which is why it will be important to see a peerreviewed evidence base for this test before we decide it is a better test than our test.
Q50 Barry Gardiner: They also tested for phenylbutazone, did they not?
Lord Rooker: Yes, they did.
Catherine Brown: Yes, they did.
Q51 Barry Gardiner: And you do not.
Catherine Brown: Sorry?
Lord Rooker: How do you mean we do not? Who said we do not?
Barry Gardiner: Please tell me that you do.
Catherine Brown: Yes, we do.
Lord Rooker: We do.
Q52 Barry Gardiner: You do; you test for phenylbutazone. How do you carry out tests on food products and what are they designed to find?
Catherine Brown: There are different sorts of tests that are looking for different things. We would use whatever the best test was to find the thing that we were looking for, but we would want to be able to use it for enforcement, so we would also want to use an accredited test that you could use for enforcement.
Q53 Barry Gardiner: The responsibility that you were originally set up to have was one that encompassed safety as well as composition of food. Composition has been taken away from you, has it not? That is now the responsibility of Defra.
Lord Rooker: Yes, in England.
Q54 Barry Gardiner: In England. How are you supposed to be able to guarantee the safety of food if you do not know what it is composed of?
Lord Rooker: It is an interesting issue to explore. The fact is, until 2010, we were responsible for most of the diet and nutrition aspects of food, food safety standards, composition, countryoforigin labelling, food authenticity and a range of other nonfood-safety issues. In 2010, that changed. We were told beforehand by the then shadow Secretary of State that, if he became Secretary of State, he would take diet and nutrition to the Department of Health. We knew about that before 2010.
On 8 July 2010, I was called to a meeting at Defra, along with the then Chief Executive, to meet the Secretary of State and Minister of State. They informed us, at that date, they were taking from us all that they could without legislation, because this was a machineryofgovernment change on the back of the diet and nutrition changes. There was no discussion. The Prime Minister had agreed it and, on 20 July, the Prime Minister made a written statement to Parliament giving the machineryofgovernment changes, setting out that the Food Standards Agency would lose diet and nutrition, food composition and the others. We can give you a list with all the details.
Q55 Barry Gardiner: And food labelling and standards policy, is that right?
Lord Rooker: Yes.
Q56 Barry Gardiner: The Food Standards Agency is not responsible for food standards. It is only responsible now for food safety.
Lord Rooker: For food safety. We lost-because, obviously, we are within the Government-23 civil servants on food labelling aspects, composition and authenticity, who went from the FSA to Defra. Some 86 on diet and nutrition went to the Department of Health. We lost the people and we lost the facility. As I said earlier on, that is the reason why we no longer lead on the current Food Information Regulations, which are being implemented from the EU; Defra leads on that. But we work with Defra. The civil servants in the FSA are of the same civil servants structure as elsewhere. Their job was to make the Prime Minister’s decision work. The board did not like it but, because it was not food safety, it was not something you go to war on. That is the reality. We are the food safety body.
Q57 Barry Gardiner: The separation that used to exist between food labelling, composition and standards, which you might say are the audit features of the food, has now been lumped in with the department that has responsibility for promoting food and farming industries.
Lord Rooker: Correct.
Q58 Iain McKenzie: Moving along if we can to the value range of Tesco products, we have heard about the beef burger containing 29% horse DNA. Have checks also been carried out on, say, the other products-chicken, turkey and pork-that are in this value range? Have you continued down the range? After finding this contamination in the beef burger, have you checked, for instance, the turkey burger, the chicken burgers, etc., which are also offered in the value range, for any contaminants?
Catherine Brown: The tests that were carried out in Silvercrest, where that gross contamination occurred, also included other food products-50 others. It was not just burgers; it was also meatproduced products: Bolognese, lasagne-type stuff and salami. It was wider than just burgers. Traces of pork were found pretty much across the range, but at trace levels; but the horse trace and the gross horse contamination were only found in the burger.
Q59 Iain McKenzie: You did not check for anything else. When you say traces of pork had been found, were traces of pork found in products that were being promoted as purely turkey or chicken? Can you say with any confidence that the turkey burger that is offered does not contain 29% of, say, sparrow DNA or whatever? Can we say that? Did you check those as well once you had found the contamination of the beef, down the value range, to make sure there was no contamination?
Catherine Brown: Is it Silvercrest or do you want me to talk about Dalepak?
Iain McKenzie: The Tesco chain of supply. Where they pulled their beef burgers from, they also have a value range that contains other products. Were they also subject to investigation?
Catherine Brown: There are two ends. There is the Silvercrest end, which is driven by investigating product that is manufactured in that plant. The logic of that investigation is that this production plant is in some way compromised, so the Irish are investigating a range of things going on in that production plant. Then there is the wider question of what Tesco’s controls are and if we should extrapolate from a problem with this product range in this facility to the possibility of a wider problem, which might occur in other facilities.
As we are, as I said at the beginning, concerned about food sold in the UK, as well as produced in the UK, that is something we will be taking up and investigating through a tight review of Tesco’s controls-so, just as you say, whether they are checking new suppliers into their supply chain and all of those things. That clearly is a critical control now. We are working with the primary authority, the lead local authority for the Tesco group, to say, "Right, let’s get out all of the things they have ever told us about their controls," which are what we basically audit, to say, "Yes, they are running a safe system of controls," and, "Now, let’s get together with them, go through every single one, audit and check."
Q60 Iain McKenzie: Following on from that, there was an announcement from the Irish Agriculture Minister to say that the beef burgers posed no health risk. What would your assessment be of that? Is there no health risk?
Catherine Brown: None of the samples that were tested had anything in them that would have been dangerous to eat, so there is no evidence, at the moment, that there has been any unsafe food produced. Clearly, what we all rely on in terms of a safe food to eat is a fully functioning system of controls and a set of audits that check and confirm, to all of our satisfaction, that that robust set of controls is being consistently applied. Where you find a case where that has not happened, it raises your general level of anxiety about the wider system but, as I say, the tests that the Irish made indicate that there is nothing to be concerned about. The things you might worry about, they tested for-Trichinella in frozen products.
Q61 Iain McKenzie: In the contamination of these burgers, would you now be able to say, with any confidence, that you could eliminate hygiene procedures as being the cause?
Catherine Brown: This stretches beyond Silvercrest, clearly, into the question of whether there are trace elements of pork in lots of things, which is one of the things we will find out when we do our wider surveillance testing. The question of carryover is whether there is an issue with the indepth cleaning of lines between changes of products that means that not everything you had hoped had gone from those lines is gone.
Q62 Iain McKenzie: At this moment then, you could not rule that out as one of the reasons for contamination.
Catherine Brown: We are not ruling out the possibility of carryover between product lines.
Lord Rooker: It is worth mentioning that, when the Irish Minister made that statement, of course, he did not know the source of the horse meat.
Chair: I think we still do not. Can we move on to Dan Rogerson, please?
Q63 Dan Rogerson: In your fourpoint plan of where to go from here, one of the elements was working with other agencies and the local authorities, as you said, on a UKwide study of the authenticity of ingredients in processed meat products. How far have you made progress with that?
Catherine Brown: Some good progress. It is extremely important that we get a robust sample, so we have had to gather all the people with an expert understanding of what a robust sample ought to comprise. They have thought about things like if it should just be supermarkets or if it should be catering outlets, for example, and we have come to the conclusion we will go for both. They have now specified exactly what samples of what kinds of products they want from which parts of the UK. We had already taken samples, but we then said, "Yes, it is interesting to take a scattering of samples and it is good that we are getting on and taking samples, but what we want now is a robust sampling plan that gives us a statistically valid understanding of what has happened." It is also very important that we have a sampling methodology that is enforceable, so that if we find things that we want to prosecute, we can prosecute on them. Yes, I think we are making good progress.
Q64 Dan Rogerson: That progress is getting everybody together to decide who is going to do the work and how it happens. What is the timescale for that?
Catherine Brown: The samples are being collected at the moment and over the next few weeks. Funnily enough, it is about the same timescale as the Irish timescale. You start the collection in November; you get your first set of test results three weeks in; you do a validating set of test results. We are expecting in the middle of April to have a robust answer.
Q65 Dan Rogerson: You mentioned catering outlets. Does that mean you will look at wholesalers as well, as a lot of their product will come from cash and carries and things?
Catherine Brown: I am afraid I do not specifically know. I will come back to you on that.
Q66 Dan Rogerson: In terms of the cheapest of products, you would probably find those at the cash and carries. That is interesting. Are there different health and safety standards for fresh and frozen meat? There might be a different standard for the two.
Catherine Brown: I do not think so. The basic requirement is that any manufacturer has to have a safe system for whatever the thing is that they are going to be selling to the public, and certainly the labelling requirements do not differentiate. What you have to put on a food label is standard.
Q67 Dan Rogerson: Fresh products stay together in a different way. It is probably easier to hide things in frozen food, because there is an extra process that keeps things together, if you know what I mean, if you are using cheaper ingredients. Would that be fair?
Catherine Brown: I do not know.
Q68 Dan Rogerson: You would not like to comment on that. Okay. Is it possible that traces of pork or horse DNA could be found in the fresh products, as well as in those frozen products that we are talking about?
Catherine Brown: Until we do the survey, we do not know. We are not drawing a definite distinction at the moment. Now we have a bit of intelligence that says there is a risk that horse is getting into the food chain, we are going to look across.
Q69 Dan Rogerson: So you will be taking samples of fresh and frozen?
Catherine Brown: I believe that is the case. I will check and confirm.
Dan Rogerson: That would be useful to have. Thank you.
Q70 Mrs Glindon: Could I just declare an interest, in that a member of my family is a meat inspector? Does the FSA deploy meat hygiene inspectors in abattoirs all the time when horses are slaughtered?
Catherine Brown: Yes.
Q71 Mrs Glindon: What happens to horse meat from UK abattoirs?
Catherine Brown: We believe that the very large majority of it is exported, but we do not have exhaustive records showing that it is all exported.
Q72 Mrs Glindon: If it was not exported, what would it be used for in this country?
Catherine Brown: I saw an interview with someone the other day who said he had a restaurant that was serving real Frenchstyle steak tartare. He was making it from horse meat. I have to say he was getting his horse meat from premium farmed horse from the south of France, not local to here, but there are restaurants, clearly, that are.
Lord Rooker: We know of one case where the horse went back to the family.
Mrs Glindon: After slaughter?
Lord Rooker: After slaughter.
Q73 Mrs Glindon: Are there processes in place whereby there could not be contaminated beef from a slaughterhouse where there were horses being slaughtered getting out of the abattoir, in this country? Are there processes for such, or are there things in place so that we could be sure that this could not happen in the same way as it has happened in, possibly, Poland?
Catherine Brown: I do not think you could absolutely guarantee that there might not be a DNA transfer if the same slaughterhouse was one day slaughtering horses and another day slaughtering something else. Particularly if you do manage to develop much more sensitive tests, down to tiny traces of DNA, I do not think you could guarantee that there would be no DNA transfer at all in those circumstances, but there is no reason to believe that big chunks of horse meat should be muddled up with the meat that is being produced in those slaughterhouses on other days. It is all being controlled, stamped and, as you say, meatinspected out, with full traceability and a proper set of records. There should not be any risk of confusion.
Q74 Mrs Glindon: That could be audited and checked.
Catherine Brown: Yes.
Lord Rooker: If I could just add to that, we audit all the plants. We publish every week about 40 audit reports of meat plants. We do about 2,000 audits a year. They are all published. I have had a look, just because I am curious, at the audit reports on the horse plants. They are available; they are on our website; they could be supplied. The kinds of things you are asking about, about making sure things do not get mixed up, are there.
Chair: I am sure we can look at those.
Lord Rooker: It is all open and published. This is the point I am making.
Q75 Chair: Before we release you, could I just ask, with the extra testing and the new methodology, what are the cost implications of these tests? Who will pick up the costs of these tests?
Catherine Brown: We funded £2 million of local authority tests last year and we have never turned down a meritorious request to do tests on the basis that we have not got the money. The money is there to do riskbased, evidencebased testing, and we do not anticipate a problem funding the riskbased, evidencebased testing that we are about to undertake. It is fair to say that local authorities are absorbing some of the cost and the pressure, because it is their staff doing the work, but we can help them with the incremental costs of the extra work.
Chair: You have been very generous with your time. We would like to thank you very much indeed for participating, Lord Rooker and Catherine Brown. Thank you. Could we invite the next group of witnesses to step forward?
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Trish Twohig, Technical Manager, Iceland, and Tim Smith, Technical Director, Tesco, gave evidence.
Q76 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to you both. Please give your names and titles for the record, if you would.
Trish Twohig: Trish Twohig, Technical Manager, Iceland Foods.
Tim Smith: Tim Smith, Group Technical Director for Tesco.
Chair: Mr Smith, it is wonderful to see you back.
Tim Smith: Thank you.
Q77 Chair: When did you actually leave your previous employ?
Tim Smith: My last day at the FSA was 22 August.
Q78 Chair: When did you commence your new position?
Tim Smith: On 15 October.
Q79 Chair: Is that commensurate with all the departmental-?
Tim Smith: Yes. I left the FSA to go on garden leave before joining Tesco.
Q80 Chair: Thank you. Can I ask when you first learned about the contamination of your beef products?
Tim Smith: Do you want both of us to answer?
Chair: I am addressing you first, Mr Smith, and we will turn to Trish Twohig in one moment.
Tim Smith: It was the afternoon of 15 January.
Q81 Chair: How did you hear, Mr Smith?
Tim Smith: The Food Safety Authority of Ireland contacted us and made it clear that they were about to make a press release concerning Tesco and its products.
Chair: And Trish Twohig?
Trish Twohig: At quarter to six on 15 January, I was called by the ABP Group Technical Director, because it was released on the FSAI report.
Q82 Chair: Neither of you had any indication that there would have been anything of any concern in any of your products prior to that.
Tim Smith: No.
Q83 Chair: You do not do random testing.
Tim Smith: We do speciation testing on a number of different products, including beef. We are checking, when we do that, for Aberdeen Angus species, for example, but we had not picked up anything of this nature, no.
Trish Twohig: We do annual speciation testing apart from equine, up until now. The two burgers in question we had tested once in the previous year, and both had come back as negative for porcine DNA.
Q84 Chair: Thank you. How, Mr Smith, do you label your beef products?
Tim Smith: How do we label them? In line with the EU and UK regulations concerning those products, so we give consumers as much information as is possible.
Trish Twohig: I can say the same as Tim has just said.
Q85 Chair: Were you surprised? I think it was one of your beef burgers, was it not, that was 29% horse meat? Were you surprised?
Tim Smith: On behalf of our customers, we were appalled, which is why we made the unreserved apology we did the next day and why we continue to apologise to our customers whenever we get the opportunity. This is completely unacceptable to Tesco. Having said that, we take full responsibility for any product that has our brand on it, and we continue to investigate on the basis that this is our responsibility and not that of our supplier.
Q86 Chair: Have you subsequently carried tests out, Mr Smith, since 15 January, on your products?
Tim Smith: We have pretty much replicated what the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has done with the products that we had on sale at the time, because of course we withdrew all the products, so we have a large number of samples that we can then take and DNA test. In crude terms, we have qualitatively tested them to look for the presence or absence of horse or pork DNA. When we have found a positive, we have gone on and quantitatively tested them to a high level of accuracy.
In terms of the product-we could not actually get to the raw material-we have not exactly replicated what the FSA has found. We have found a presence, but we have not found gross contamination in the products we have sampled thus far. It is fair to say that our investigations are continuing. We now have samples that are almost identical in time, because the time is significant here, to the day, 17 October, when those products were manufactured. That is when we believe the horse meat got into those Tesco Everyday Value products. We are continuing to do more testing. It is not pointless to do it, but we have accepted from the outset that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s tests are valid.
Q87 Chair: You have shared the results with the FSA.
Tim Smith: Yes, and FSAI of course, because we have had a good dialogue with them throughout this.
Q88 Chair: Trish Twohig, have you also carried out tests?
Trish Twohig: Samples that were retained from the original batches were dispatched to Reading Scientific’s lab and also to Eurofins’ in Germany. Actually, we were very fortunate that, by chance, the FSAI results were from a sample produced at 15.55, and the RSSL’s and Eurofins’ ones were from 15.56-literally a minute apart. Indeed, the other sample, which was 15.27 from the FSAI, was 14.35 from the retained sample, so again very close matches. Both have come back as negative for both porcine and equine DNA.
Q89 Chair: Mr Smith, Tesco has apologised in rather large advertisements that no one could miss. Today, you have issued a statement yourself to say that you want to stop it ever happening again. What reassurance will your customers have that it will not happen again?
Tim Smith: I can take the Committee through the details of the testing that we have in place if you wish-the audits, the surveillance, the quality checks and so on-but we have added an extra layer. By talking about the surveillance we have previously carried out, we have clearly missed, on this occasion, something that could go wrong. To prevent it going wrong again, we have decided to make a significant investment, at our cost, in DNA sampling of those meats and meat products where this is a potential risk to consumers.
Q90 Chair: Are you surprised to hear, as we have just heard, that this contamination could have gone on for as long as a year?
Tim Smith: I have had the benefit of having conversations with the Minister of Agriculture in Ireland and the FSAI, and both of them have said, in a conversational way rather than in an evidential way, that they believe this started in May 2012.
Q91 Barry Gardiner: Have either of your companies taken legal advice about the likelihood of your being prosecuted for selling horse meat that is not properly labelled?
Tim Smith: Yes.
Q92 Barry Gardiner: What was the result of that advice?
Tim Smith: In any prosecution like that, our lawyers obviously will need to see what the evidence is for such a case, but we would need to show proper due diligence for the checks that are done, in a routine way, on that site. Just by way of example, we had been on that site three times to do audits in the year of 2012, the most recent of which was also May 2012. That would form part of our explanation. We have not had anybody telling us about any prosecution yet.
Q93 Barry Gardiner: Silvercrest produces, what, 200 million burgers a year, do they not?
Tim Smith: I do not know how many they produce in total.
Q94 Barry Gardiner: Look, Mr Smith, you are a company that is notorious for refusing misshapen apples or pears and sending them back to farmers. You meticulously check your supply chain in anything that you think will be adverse to your interests, and yet you did not pick up that your beef burgers had 29% horse meat in them. Surely there is a failure here that is of absolutely extraordinary proportion, is there not?
Tim Smith: Let me answer that by saying this: we always think about the quality and the standards that our food-
Barry Gardiner: As it helps you to do down the farmer, very often.
Tim Smith: -for customers. Regarding the surveillance we carry out on our suppliers, we do 22,000 specific tests a year. On quality checking, we are testing 40% of Tesco products, which is something like 16,000 tests a year. For audits, we are doing 1,200 audits a year. If you add that up, it costs £3.5 million to £4 million to Tesco. We do not do that just to keep ourselves legal; we do it on behalf of our customers. Our priority, whether it is misshapen apples or whether it is any other product specification, is to give our customers the best possible deal. If customers told us they did not need those checks to be done, we would be responsive to those changes.
Q95 Barry Gardiner: You are saying that, in response to misshapen apples, you are testing all the product that comes through. When you see misshapen apples, you send them back but, none the less, three visits a year to your meat supplier is an adequate test. Why are you not testing each consignment of meat that comes into you in the same way that you do with your apples and pears?
Tim Smith: First of all, I do not accept your premise that we reject apples in what you describe as an inappropriate way. We do what customers want us to do when it comes to the produce that we sell.
Barry Gardiner: You obviously do not, because they do not want their beef burgers to be horse meat.
Tim Smith: I was talking about apples, as you were talking about apples. On meat, the tests that are done are not just the audits on the site; they are the audits that go on all the way back up the supply chain. Let us remember here that we had approved for use seven different suppliers to Silvercrest-no more than that. The fact is that Silvercrest, for whatever reason, chose to use suppliers that we had not approved and audited. When those seven suppliers are audited, we are also auditing, checking and going back and looking at the livestock standards and all the welfare standards of the farms that supply those seven suppliers. If somebody chooses to step outside of that process deliberately, for whatever commercial reason, then it is impossible to check a supplier in Poland, which we do not even know exists.
Q96 Barry Gardiner: Unless you check the product when it comes to you.
Tim Smith: Yes, which is why we have instituted a programme of DNA testing, starting today.
Q97 Barry Gardiner: Now?
Tim Smith: Yes.
Q98 Barry Gardiner: Exactly. The point is you did not do that, did you?
Tim Smith: No, we did some speciation tests. We do some DNA testing for authentication purposes. We do testing for basmati rice authenticity. We do it for olive oil and we do it for a whole range of other products-to check white fish species. In the same way as you might expect others to comment, this had not been a risk that was identified as being high on our list of priorities. It is now. We have let our customers down and, as a consequence of that, we have learned our lesson. We have taken action. We have fixed the problem and we get on with it.
Q99 Thomas Docherty: First of all, further to the question from the Chair earlier on, I am conscious that I have seen Tesco’s apology. I have not seen Iceland’s apology. Would you like to place it on the public record?
Trish Twohig: We are clearly disappointed with what has happened. It is absolutely not what we want to see, and our customers are obviously disappointed as well. We have taken it extremely seriously. We withdrew the products that evening, instigated our crisis management investigation, and we have taken it as seriously as anybody could have done. Absolutely, we have put it right and that is where we are.
Q100 Thomas Docherty: Sorry; maybe it was my broad Scottish accent. What I said was: would you like to apologise? I did not want you to tell me that you have taken steps.
Trish Twohig: I beg your pardon, sorry. Of course I am sorry this has happened. Of course I am.
Q101 Thomas Docherty: My understanding is this morning Tesco has announced that they are going to introduce new DNA testing across the board. Mr Smith, how will you be sharing that on an ongoing basis with the FSA and FSAI? Is Iceland also doing that?
Tim Smith: Can I answer that in two parts? The first thing to say is that we will commence the testing immediately. We have tenders out to the laboratories now and we will be engaging with the regulatory authorities. I would suggest we probably need to include the European Food Safety Authority too, as good risk assessors, to work out at what point on the spectrum we draw a line and say, "Beyond that we will not go." That would be the first part of the engagement. We will get on and do the tests regardless of how long that takes.
The second part is that I see no reason why we cannot aggregate the data up and give it to any of our regulators, even if they do not require it of us. I think we would volunteer that information if it were helpful. This is clearly going to be a crossindustry issue to be dealt with, but Tesco wanted to get in first, because our customers have been let down the most.
Q102 Thomas Docherty: You have a unique perspective, I suspect, on the operations of the FSA, Mr Smith. It sounds like you have not, as a company, actually talked to the FSA. You have taken this-and this is not necessarily a criticism-as a unilateral step. Given your unique perspective, would you expect it to be helpful to the FSA and FSAI?
Tim Smith: I can put it this way: we would have done it anyway. Unilaterally or not, we would have reached the decision that this was right for our customers. The second piece is that I know how constrained local authorities are in their testing regimes and budgets. If organisations like ours can be helpful to regulators, we will be, because we are going to put the resources behind this regardless.
Trish Twohig: It is a slightly different situation for Iceland, because the test result from the FSAI was 0.1% and our burgers come from the Northallerton plant and not from Silvercrest. That is just to put that in context for you to begin with. Secondly, I cannot quite remember, but it was within the first 24 hours of knowing we had a problem that I requested that ABP tested and positivereleased everything they had made for us in recent history and everything going forward, until such time as we knew what had gone wrong and until such time as we knew we had got to the bottom of it. Fifty test results came back and were shared by ABP with the FSA last week, and also with the FSA in Wales. Of course, we are a Welsh retailer. That is on top of the four, if you like, duplicate test results I have already mentioned to you. We have had speciation testing for years within Iceland, done by a thirdparty accredited laboratory, and now we will add to that suite equine as well, going forward.
Q103 Thomas Docherty: Mr Smith, what is the cost to Tesco of this?
Tim Smith: If we only sample one site every year, and we will do this on an unannounced basis-we will do it at our cost-we are going to be talking certainly north of £1 million a year. It could be anything between £1 million and £2 million. That is to do every site that we produce meat on once.
Q104 Thomas Docherty: Tesco has 1,000 stores in the UK.
Tim Smith: More than that, yes.
Q105 Thomas Docherty: The one in Dunfermline, in my constituency, has that in turnover per week, so we are talking-my maths is not great because I am a politician-one week at one shop a year to do this.
Tim Smith: The number of meat suppliers we have got is the critical bit and the number of products that they produce. At this early stage, it is difficult to say how many of those we will need to do and with what frequency. We are still working that process up. You would expect me to be hesitant somewhat about the depth of the cost of that. The relevant number is that we are going to be effectively saying to customers, with a much higher degree of certainty, that this new level of surveillance gives them a much stronger chance that nothing like this can ever happen again.
Q106 Thomas Docherty: How much do you, the two companies, estimate you have lost in terms of revenue because of what has happened?
Tim Smith: I cannot estimate that at this stage. The investigations are still going on, and the impact of the losses that we have incurred and those that have been incurred by the stores themselves are still being tabulated.
Q107 Thomas Docherty: It is probably bigger than £1 million though, is it not?
Tim Smith: A lot bigger.
Q108 Thomas Docherty: I bet you wish you did it in the first place.
Tim Smith: With hindsight, the technology has existed for a good deal of time now to enable us to do this. It is a slightly daunting prospect, in that each sample-I do not know what Iceland’s experience is-is something between £400 and £500 each. That means that you take a deep breath before you embark on a companywide programme, but we see that as the only sensible precaution to take.
Q109 Dan Rogerson: As you set out, the process you are now bringing in is designed to check that there is no risk to consumers, which was the phrase that you used, but we are not really talking about risk, because we are talking about a labelling issue. When you say "risk", can we just clarify that you mean not just a health risk but the risk of a mislabelled product?
Tim Smith: I explicitly do not mean a health risk. I mean that nobody should be able to buy a product from Tesco, thanks to this labelling, that does not contain what the label says it should.
Q110 Dan Rogerson: It is a labelling risk. There is an abattoir in my constituency that does fresh beef products and, as Mr Gardiner was saying, they know right the way down to what every animal did on its holidays; they know everything about it. When you are looking at this process, if we scale up the amount of burger meat we are talking about, in a burger, 0.1% does not sound very much. If you scale up the throughput of these factories in a day, 0.1% is a fair amount of our horsey friends going through there. I am quite interested as to this idea that there is a bit of contamination and you cannot stop all of that. You would think, at the end of the day, when you have had a throughput of animals going through, everything would be cleaned right down in these facilities. Therefore, you would make sure that there is no contamination, because you are starting the next day clean. If you went into a kitchen in a hotel or something, it would be cleaned down. For nut allergies, a tiny trace I can understand could potentially be a risk. We are talking about 0.1% of a day’s throughput of burger meat. That is potentially quite a lot of contamination, is it not? In your case, it is not the third of the burger that it was in Tesco, but that must be worrying.
Trish Twohig: Of course it is worrying that anything that should not be in our product is being isolated, so please do not think I am saying "it was only", because I certainly am not saying that. It is fair to say that these are DNA levels, so the cleandowns and the understanding that we have had of the requirements for cleandowns for hygiene is one level, but for DNA, which is the forensic level, we may be into uncharted territory with the development of better testing. I think it is fair to say that work needs to be done in that area, so that we understand the playing field, but we are also working on cleaning to make sure it is better than before.
Q111 Neil Parish: I was listening to an Irish consumer who said, "Of course, if you are only paying €1 for four burgers, you ought to question what is in them." I think that is very astute. My question to Mr Smith and Ms Twohig is: are you suspicious of those very cheap, for want of a better word, products that you are selling, especially if a burger contains all sorts of things? Do you look at those more carefully than you would your de luxe burgers? There is the potential, surely, to mix it when it is very cheap meat.
Tim Smith: No, we do not have a different set of standards, either for the way the recipe is created or the way the specification itself is checked and the surveillance is done. If I can pose two risks, one is that with an Everyday Value burger, which will contain 63% to 64% meat, making sure that it contains at least that much is probably the first thing you would want to do. On an Aberdeen Angus burger, which might be 99% Aberdeen Angus, we do a different test, but it would be for the same purpose: to make sure the beef in that was the species it was supposed to be. You end up doing pretty much the same level of check, whatever the product is.
I take your premise from a consumer point of view that you might be more concerned about it. My own family would probably say the same thing. My reassurance to Tesco’s customers is pretty straightforward: the rigour, the surveillance, the quality checking and the auditing take no notice of the price that product is being sold at, or the recipe.
Q112 Neil Parish: When beef is trading at a substantial premium to horse meat and when there are, perhaps, unscrupulous people out there-and obviously there were, because you would not have got into this predicament if there were not-have you learned in hindsight then that perhaps a greater degree of analysis of those cheaper products is necessary?
Tim Smith: No, because if you have seven authorised suppliers supplying one factory-I think we had 11 products on sale from that factory at the time-every one of those is going to get the same rigour. As long as the factory does what it is supposed to do and we do our checks, customers can be as convinced by an Everyday Value burger as they can be by an Aberdeen Angus burger from Tesco. The quality standards are exactly the same. It makes no difference. It could easily have been a different burger. It did not necessarily have to be that one. That time that our colleague from Iceland has talked about is critical. On that day, there was clearly introduced on to that site a significant proportion of horse meat-just at that moment. Then we have a separate issue, which is the traces that are being found, both in this factory and in others.
Dan Rogerson: It was very unlucky it was that day.
Q113 Barry Gardiner: Did that just happen to be the one that was picked up?
Tim Smith: If you think about the surveillance that we have all done since, and I am sure ABP would be able to say this if they were here, that is the critical day. How they knew that that was the right day to test, I have no concept, but we have not, in any other sample from any other day, found anything other than very vague traces.
Q114 Thomas Docherty: What percentage are you testing?
Tim Smith: What percentage am I describing?
Thomas Docherty: Did you test?
Neil Parish: What was the percentage of either horse or pork meat in a beef burger that you tested for?
Tim Smith: The most we have found so far is 0.2% from the same day of that production.
Q115 Neil Parish: Can I ask Iceland now, please? Many of your burgers would be the more-I shall be diplomatic-costefficient burgers?
Trish Twohig: We are absolutely passionate about our food safety, quality and label. We hinge on our specification, so whatever the specification says is what we expect to have in the product. Irrespective of whether it is an expensive or a value product, to me they are all equal and they need to adhere to that specification. If something changes, then it is the buyer’s issue, not the specification issue. It is unfortunate that sometimes that perception can be there, but I guarantee you we do not compromise our quality on any of our ingredients.
Q116 Neil Parish: You are relying entirely on whoever is supplying you with the beef burger to have actually signed that beef burger off as to what exactly is in it, and to present it to you. You yourselves in Iceland are not doing any form of tests on that or have not done in the past.
Trish Twohig: We are indeed. Just to put it in a little bit of context for Iceland, we too have got a programme of carefully selecting our suppliers, and we require that all of our suppliers have a thirdparty audit from the BRC-the British Retail Consortium Global Standard for Food Safety. We also are required to approve the site ourselves. We attend every first production run. We scrutinise that specification and we will check a selection of raw materials when we are there. My team were seven times on that site in 2012.
Also, once it is launched, we have got a depot team of QAs, two at each of our four regional depots, who do quality assessment when it comes in. On an annual basis, a thirdparty UKASaccredited lab checks the species, albeit up until now not equine. Going forward from this week, we will include equine. Bear in mind, we are in the middle of this investigation still so, at present, I am positivereleasing until we understand what has gone wrong. Once we understand what has gone wrong, there may well be some other actions that will come out. In the fullness of time, we will come to a programme that is at an appropriate level, based on risk.
Q117 Neil Parish: You were seven times on that site in 2012. You must have been suspicious of that site.
Trish Twohig: No.
Q118 Neil Parish: I am not convinced that you have got your inspectors going seven times in a year to every plant that you take meat product from. It would be very difficult to say that that is the case.
Trish Twohig: You are right, sir, and I will explain to you why. We attend every first production run. We had seven first production runs in 2012, or potentially six-I do not want to tell you a lie-and we had one technical visit. Most of the activity was first production runs. You are absolutely right: other factories may see us once a year. It just depends on the activity within the site.
Q119 Neil Parish: Just one final question; I asked the same of the FSA when they were here. Quite a lot of burgers had just 0.1% of pork fat or meat in them. For people who, because of their religion, do not want to eat any pork meat at all, are you going to test to the level of 0.1%? Also, do you feel it is acceptable to have any level of contamination whatsoever? Can you guarantee in the future there will not be any level of contamination whatsoever?
Tim Smith: We have had dialogue with faith groups over the years and will continue to do so because, as we have already heard this afternoon, what constitutes clean and hygienic does not necessarily constitute free from DNA of a particular species. When we have started to do our sampling regime and started to get the tests back, I think we will need to get customers, faith group representatives particularly and the regulators in a room-probably as an industry but certainly Tesco will want to do this-and have an open and transparent dialogue about what it means to say, "This contains beef," and mean, "It is only beef." Is that to what level of certainty?
The testing that was done by the FSAI was, I think for the first time in these islands, at that level of specificity. They doubt for themselves whether they will be able to sustain for their market that testing level, because it will pick up minute traces-I think at 15 parts per million, which is a tiny fraction. It is what you do with that information that really matters.
Q120 Mrs Glindon: Mr Smith, can I just ask you a question going back to the new DNA testing that you spoke of earlier? You said that Tesco would be bearing the additional cost of that. I just want to ask if you can guarantee that the cost of this important DNA testing will not be passed on to customers.
Tim Smith: I can. We are absolutely resolute in that, partly because it would only be fair if we bore the cost and partly because we need to be completely independent in all of this. We need to keep the testing away from our suppliers. We need to keep it away from even the regulators to begin with. That cost has to be ours.
Q121 Barry Gardiner: Does that mean it comes out of your profit or does it mean that you put it back on to your suppliers in reducing the amount that you pay them, because that is what you do with everything else, is it not?
Tim Smith: That might be your assertion. What we will actually do is take the costs of that into my technical function, which is independent within Tesco. It will come out of my costs.
Barry Gardiner: It may not come out of Tesco’s profit.
Tim Smith: My costs are paid for from Tesco’s revenues.
Barry Gardiner: Revenues, not profit.
Trish Twohig: Do you want me to add my side to this one? We have at the moment utilised our supplier to do a body of work for us, because they had the samples on their premises. It was the fastest way for us to get it done, but they used an independent lab. We are currently already doing some speciation testing. We will be adding to the suite, but we will also be stepping back and thinking about what other products need to be considered as part of the washup of this incident management. Certainly we will be increasing what we do with respect to testing and we already take the costs for that within Iceland anyway.
Chair: Thank you both very much indeed, Trish Twohig and Tim Smith, for participating in our inquiry this afternoon. We will wheel the next witnesses in.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: David Heath MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, Defra, Anna Soubry MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health, and Steve Wearne, Director, Food Standards Agency Wales, gave evidence.
Q122 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome. Thank you all for participating in our inquiry into the contamination of beef products. Could you just introduce yourselves for the record, giving your names and titles?
Anna Soubry: I am Anna Soubry and I am the Minister for Public Health.
Mr Heath: David Heath, Minister of State at Defra.
Steve Wearne: I am Steve Wearne and I am a Director at the Food Standards Agency.
Q123 Chair: Thank you. At the outset, it would just be helpful to clarify what the respective roles are as regards food safety and food standards. Having heard from the Food Standards Agency earlier, could we hear from the two respective departments?
Mr Heath: Shall I open up? First of all, many thanks for inviting us here today. I hope we can be helpful. Certainly I have heard in the House and elsewhere a degree of confusion about these responsibilities and a lot of people saying that there was somehow a lack of coordination following the change to the machinery of Government in 2010. I thought it might be helpful to go back to that point to explain what happened and what did not happen then. The Food Standards Agency has, as you know, an important role in maintaining the safety of the food that is sold and consumed in this country. They are answerable, through my colleague the Minister for Public Health, to the House.
There was a significant change in 2010, but it was a limited one. The decision taken then was that the advice that was available to Ministers in my department on labelling and the things that go with labelling, rather than being proffered by civil servants within the FSA, should be given to civil servants within Defra. That made sense, because we were aware that there were a number of European issues coming up, not least countryoforigin labelling, where a close coordination between the advice from our civil servants and Ministers would be of advantage. That was shifted as a responsibility from the FSA to Defra, so we now have the policy responsibility for labelling and we have the civil servants who support us in that role. It has not changed in any way our working relationship with the FSA, the FSA’s very good relationship with local authorities, in the form of the trading standards officers who carry out much of the testing, or, indeed, the relationship between the FSA and the Department of Health. I hope that is helpful.
Anna Soubry: For my part, as the Minister for Public Health, if you take this particular example, the first question that certainly I and my officials asked is, "We have here a situation where something that purports to be beef in fact has traces, and in one case actually a rather significant amount, of other meat that is not beef." The next thing that we ask is, "Well, it’s got this stuff in it that it shouldn’t have that isn’t reflected accurately in the label. Is there any public health issue? Is there any safety issue there?" Therefore, we work with the FSA, and other officials-the chief medical officer, whoever-become involved in understanding, notwithstanding it has got stuff in it that it should not have, whether that material is safe or whether it poses a threat.
If it was brought to our attention that a particular product had in it, for example, nuts that had not been labelled as nuts, that would have a clear public health safety issue because, as you will all be aware, if you have a nut allergy and you eat food that is not properly labelled as containing nuts, that can be potentially lifethreatening for a consumer of it. Does that make sense?
Q124 Chair: We will find out as the afternoon goes on. It was made clear to us this afternoon by the FSA that they consider themselves as a nonministerial department in their own right. The question we are asking ourselves is how accountable they are: one department seems to answer the questions, but another department seems to answer for labelling.
Anna Soubry: Obviously I take the view that this is a very valid question to ask. I am not saying for one moment that this Committee would ever ask a question that is not valid, but I think it is an extremely important question. When, if I may say, people like you, Miss McIntosh, ask the questions that you rightly do, whether orally or by way of a written question, I am the Minister who replies; but, because of the way that the statutes set up the FSA, they are a nonministerial department-they are standalone. You will appreciate the history of why that was decided back in 2000 and in the run up to there, because of what happened with CJD. Frankly there was a failing in public confidence, and at that time Parliament took the view that we needed a Food Standards Agency that was, frankly, free from any form of political interference.
Chair: We do not want to spend all afternoon on this point. I thought it was going to be quite a straightforward question.
Anna Soubry: I thought that answered it. Do forgive me.
Q125 Chair: We want to find out if it would not be better or less confusing for everybody-consumers, Members of Parliament, everybody-if we had a single entity responsible for all aspects of food safety, food hygiene and food standards, as indeed they have in the FSA in Scotland.
Anna Soubry: I think they do.
Mr Heath: Perhaps I could just try again. It is a fact that I or the Secretary of State has to go to Brussels to argue within the context of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on matters of labelling, as they apply to agricultural produce. Therefore, if the complete responsibility were to move to the Department of Health, for instance, it would not alter in any way my need to have clear advice on that matter, which is exactly what we have at the moment. That is why the civil servants who work on those areas are now located in my department. It just is something that straddles more than one subject area, and we have to accept that and also accept the integrity of the FSA and the very good work that they do.
Anna Soubry: I have to say, for my part, I think it works. One of the reasons it works is that they are an independent organisation, in the sense that they are free from political interference, plus you have the crosschecks in the cooperation between us, as Ministers, our officials, and of course officials from the FSA who work extremely closely with my officials in the Department of Health.
Q126 Chair: Let us move on. We have heard this afternoon that it is quite possible and probable that the contamination of beef products has lasted for up to a year, and certainly most likely from May 2012. Bearing in mind that consumers think they are eating beef, not horse meat or other products, how, Minister Heath, can you assure UK consumers that this contamination is not more widespread and has not reached other meat products?
Mr Heath: I can never give 100% assurances, Miss McIntosh, on something like that, because it is subject to the testing regime and the protocols that are in place. As I indicated earlier, I have confidence in the work that the FSA does on behalf of the public and on behalf of the Government in testing. They do operate, and Steve will no doubt be able to speak for himself on this, on a risk basis, because to do otherwise would be a misuse of the resources that they have available. They work very closely in conjunction with other food standards agencies around Europe, and that is exactly the system we saw working in the case of the Irish notifying us of a problem. In the same way, we regularly notify other member states of problems that we identify in our work.
I am sorry, but it is not feasible to DNAtest every burger that is sold in this country. There are over 1 billion burgers sold and, at £250 a shot, I think £250 billion would not be well spent in testing every single one. We have to identify where there is risk and set out a workable and sciencebased protocol in order to make those checks and, when we find something, act quickly to deal with it. That is precisely what has happened. I do not know, Steve, if you want to talk about the FSA’s role in this.
Steve Wearne: Thank you, Chair. I think you are asking primarily about the reassurance that UK consumers can take. The control system that we oversee and is implemented largely by local authorities in the UK is not based on destructive testing of every food. It is based on audit, validation and verification of the systems that those businesses have in place to identify and control risks, and those are the sorts of risks that Tim Smith and Trish Twohig were talking about in the previous session.
Q127 Chair: Are you concerned, Minister Heath, that it was not our FSA that picked up this contamination? It was picked up by the FSA of Ireland.
Mr Heath: Not unduly. I am very pleased that the Irish picked it up, but it could just as easily have been the other way round. The Irish were apparently not working on the basis of intelligence in this instance but, generally speaking, most food standards agencies do work on the basis of intelligence. My confidence is in the systems that are in place actually making sure that we exchange information promptly and effectively, and that we take action where it is required. I have to say we should not get away from the fact, and I think this is a very important point to make to the Committee, that the primary responsibility always lies with the retailer and the processor. They have the legal duty to make sure that this does not happen. I know that the big retailers involved here are taking action-I think you took evidence on this earlier-to investigate very swiftly what has occurred and to take appropriate action in the case of their suppliers, but we must make sure that they are doing the job. That is effectively what we do.
Q128 Chair: Initially, there was an allegation that the source of the contamination was from a third country. Now it looks more likely that it may be from Poland or somewhere in the EU. You responded to a written question from me, Minister Heath, on Monday, saying that "Meat and other products of animal origin produced in the EU (like beef burgers …) are traded freely within the EU and the responsibility for animal and public health and food hygiene lies with the exporting member state." In that case, you cannot hold the retailer responsible. It is the responsibility of the exporting member state.
Mr Heath: With respect, I think you are confusing two things. Responsibility in legal terms for enforcing compliance of course lies with the member state, but the requirement in law is for retailers to sell produce that is fit for purpose and is as described.
Q129 Chair: If it transpires that this consignment of contaminated meat did come from an EU country like Poland, and if it transpires that checks were not properly carried out or there were grounds to suspect that they were not properly carried out, would there be grounds for a legal action? If there were such grounds for a legal action, who would bring that legal action?
Mr Heath: Member states do not normally sue one another. There may be a case, first of all, on the part of the retailer to take out litigation. It is for them to decide whether it is appropriate, in terms of contract compliance. In terms of criminality, I am not in a position to say whether there is criminality. I can express an opinion, which is that 29% substitution suggests to me that something may have been deliberately mislabelled, either at the source or at the instigation of the receiving company, but that is purely an opinion. This is a matter for the Irish authorities. This country no longer governs the south of Ireland and, therefore, it is for their legal agencies to decide whether prosecution is appropriate, rather than ours.
Q130 Chair: Would you be minded to bring anything to the attention of the EU Commission? This consignment may have come from a member state, via another member state, but it worked its way into the UK food chain. You do not think there are any grounds to complain-because they are very quick to find fault with our meat producers.
Mr Heath: We exchange information all the time with other member states and with the Commission. If the Commission felt that there was something that was an infraction of EU law, I am sure they would wish to take action themselves.
Q131 Chair: Are you minded to bring it to their attention?
Mr Heath: I do not think, frankly, it would be for us to do so in the first instance. It would be for the Irish Government. As I say, the Irish Government is not within our jurisdiction.
Q132 Chair: I am sorry; the product ended up in UK food, in UK retailers and on UK plates. Why would you leave it to the Irish to do this?
Mr Heath: Because, Miss McIntosh, it would appear, if the Irish investigation is correct, that the contamination was as a consequence of somebody in Poland selling something to somebody in Ireland.
Steve Wearne: The European Commission is already aware of this incident, as you may well have guessed from the coverage it has been given, and I guess they may well be watching these proceedings as they are televised. If the Commission is concerned, then one of the avenues open to it is to ask its Food and Veterinary Office to investigate. That is, if you like, the audit arm of the Commission. We have received Food and Veterinary Office missions ourselves, as all member states have. There are systems in place to ensure that, where there are failures of control in member states, the Commission takes an active interest, determines whether that national authority is taking remedial action and, if they think there is anything worth further investigation, they have their own team that they send in.
Q133 Chair: We heard earlier that it is quite feasible-it has not been ruled out-that a contaminated product from Poland got into the supply chain in Dalepak. That is a direct UK angle there. Presumably that would give you the opportunity to bring this to the attention of the Commission. A complaint has to be made to the Commission if there are sufficient grounds to do so. It is not up to the Commission to bring its own initiative complaint in each case.
Steve Wearne: Could I just clarify? The product from Poland that has been described was only sent to the Silvercrest plant in the Republic of Ireland and not to Dalepak in England.
Chair: A product from Ireland, as we heard earlier, made its way to Dalepak in the north of England, in North Yorkshire. We just seem to be going round in circles here.
Q134 Barry Gardiner: What are the Poles going to say? "It came from Czechoslovakia." "The horses came from Hungary."
Chair: That is a question, Mr Heath.
Mr Heath: What sort of question is that, Mr Gardiner? I am sorry; are you asking me to speculate where it may have come from?
Q135 Barry Gardiner: No. What I am saying is, it seems to me, that by your argument, it would be very easy to push back responsibility ad infinitum. The point is, as you pointed out, Mr Heath, if in fact one country has exported it to another country, it is the responsibility of the country that has been receiving it to then report the other country to the EU. That is what you said of Ireland in relation to Poland, so why does the same logic not apply to the UK in relation to Ireland?
Mr Heath: I would have thought any normal reading of the facts would suggest that the principal fault lies in the import of material from Poland into Ireland, if the Irish authorities are correct.
Q136 Barry Gardiner: You have already ascertained, that means, that the Irish people knew nothing about the irregularity. You have done those checks and you have ascertained that.
Mr Heath: Of course I have not, because I am not responsible for the Republic of Ireland and I must go by what the Republic of Ireland’s Government tells me.
Barry Gardiner: This is nonsense.
Mr Heath: I am sorry we do not have jurisdiction over Ireland, but we do not.
Barry Gardiner: That is not the issue, as you well know, Mr Heath.
Steve Wearne: If I might attempt to help, as the Minister said earlier, the responsibility lies with food businesses.
Q137 Chair: I am sorry; the Minister has written to me to say that it is the responsibility of the exporting member state to conduct the checks on animal and public health and food hygiene. I am simply asking whether, if it transpires-and we are coming on to this situation now-that the contaminated product came from Poland to Ireland, into the United Kingdom, you will make an official complaint to the Commission, under the treaty.
Steve Wearne: My apologies; I may be at crosspurposes. I was addressing the culpability, which lies with the food business and every food business in the chain. What you are talking about are the official controls, which are the enforcement backstop. Yes, it is the responsibility of the Polish authorities to ensure, through their official checks, that Polish businesses are living up to the responsibilities they have in food law.
Barry Gardiner: And they have failed.
Q138 Chair: If they have failed, you have the legal action that you can take through the Commission. We are simply asking for an assurance that you will consider that, if that is where the facts take you.
Anna Soubry: Surely all options should always remain open. Mr Gardiner, I am sure you are more than capable of interrupting me. I am just trying to help. One of the problems at the moment is that we do not know whether or not there has been deliberate defrauding or whether there has been deliberate, effectively, criminal activity. The difficulty is at the moment, until we know exactly how it came to be, we do not know whether or not the people who made the burgers knew that the meat that was coming in was in some way contaminated. We do not know that yet. Therefore, it could be that, as you rightly identify, there is a genuine fault in Poland with a particular supplier of this meat, either deliberately or not deliberately, because they have not been doing the right checks. Until we can establish all those facts, then you cannot roll it back in order to find out where the responsibility lies.
Q139 Barry Gardiner: Ms Soubry, I am quoting from Mr Heath’s reply to the written PQ posed by the Chair: "Meat and other products of animal origin produced in the EU (like the beef burgers under investigation in Ireland) are traded freely within the EU and the responsibility for animal and public health and food hygiene lies with the exporting member state." My difficulty in this is that I understand that the beef burgers were exported from Ireland to the UK. Therefore, the responsibility lay with the exporting member state. Therefore, it is within the UK’s powers-and indeed, I would say, responsibilities to the consumer-to raise the issue that Ireland failed in exercising its controls with the EU Commission. All we are asking is that you give a commitment that you do that. You have singularly failed to give that commitment.
Mr Heath: With respect, that changed the question, because the question before was whether we were going to raise a complaint against Poland.
Barry Gardiner: No, it did not.
Mr Heath: Now it is against Ireland.
Q140 Chair: In my view, and we are coming on to the facts now, if you are saying it was Polish meat coming into Ireland and then into the UK, I think you have a case to make against Poland and Ireland.
Mr Heath: Given the fact that the Irish authorities actually did identify this problem, did notify us at the earliest opportunity and did interdict it, it would be slightly perverse to complain about the conduct of the Irish authorities. That of course is something we are taking further advice on, as to whether it is appropriate. In the case of the Polish import-if indeed it came from Poland into Ireland-I would have thought, in the first instance, that is a matter for the Irish Government rather than the UK Government, because they are the receiving authority. Obviously we will keep all these things under review. If the occasion requires us to take action, we will take it.
Q141 Neil Parish: I want to ask the question about whether there are any checks at all made by port health authorities on meat and meatderived products imported from the EU. All right, this meat went into Ireland, but are we sure that meat from this same processing plant in Poland is not actually getting into the UK directly? Do you have any means whatsoever of checking it at the ports?
Steve Wearne: Are you referring to product traded within the EU or from outside the EU?
Neil Parish: I shall ask you about third countries in a minute, but this is specifically about EU countries.
Steve Wearne: Product traded within the EU can circulate freely. That means it is effectively illegal to detain it for checking at ports. That does not mean that it cannot be sampled and checked by inland authorities with the same frequency and alacrity as we would test UKsourced product.
Q142 Neil Parish: Right, so in plain English does that mean that it cannot be tested at the port but it can be tested when it gets to the processing plant in the UK, if that is where it reaches?
Steve Wearne: In essence, yes.
Q143 Neil Parish: In essence, yes. I would have thought, even under EU law, if you thought that something was coming in illegally, you would have the powers to inspect that at the port.
Steve Wearne: There are those safeguard provisions within European food law but, in general, the first recourse would be to approach the authorities in the exporting member state to put right whatever the deficit was.
Q144 Chair: You have just contradicted yourself, because we just suggested that that is what Poland should have done.
Steve Wearne: Poland?
Steve Wearne: Poland, in the conduct of their official controls, should make sure that they have assurances that all of the food safety and food standards controls undertaken by Polish food businesses are effective.
Q145 Chair: Have you sought those assurances?
Steve Wearne: We have not sought those assurances directly from Poland.
Chair: You have not.
Steve Wearne: We have not.
Q146 Chair: Have the Irish?
Steve Wearne: I do not know whether the Irish have or not. We are now taking this Polish product and identifying where else it may have gone, in terms of products that were either produced or sold in the UK.
Q147 Neil Parish: Coming back to my questioning, I want to go on to third countries now, but you see one of the weaknesses always of the EU system is that it is basically signed off by the member state as being correctly produced, and it says what it says on the label literally, and then there are really no physical tests on that until it reaches its final destination. We can argue what is right and what is wrong under EU law, but what happens about meat coming from third countries-countries outside of the EU? Do you actually have anybody physically at the ports to be able to inspect this meat if you perceive there could be a problem or you have intelligence that there might be some dodgy meat coming into the ports?
Steve Wearne: Yes, and there are clear requirements for both documentary and physical checks of imported meat and meat products from third countries.
Mr Heath: As an example, there is a huge and continuing attempted interdiction of bush meat coming in through our airports, which is a real issue.
Q148 Neil Parish: On bush meat, I think it really does need to be inspected more. But at our major ports where possibly containerloads of meat are coming in, perhaps through Dover or wherever, what do you have in the way of abilities to be able to stop those lorries and be able to test what is in those lorries?
Mr Heath: The key issue, as far as the EU and our application of the law is concerned, as I understand it, is proportionality. Therefore, it would be disproportionate for us to stop every shipment from a member state and test it. It would be disproportionate for us to require it to be put into cold storage for long periods or any of those actions. Where we have intelligence that suggests that there is a plant, animal or human health risk, then there are actions we can take. Speaking as a Defra Minister, can I say that very regularly we, on the basis of intelligence, will look at a consignment of vegetables, for instance, if we believe there to be disease in them, and take appropriate action? That is not a problem, but we have to act proportionately and we have to have reasonable suspicion that there is a problem that we need to address.
Q149 Neil Parish: At the port when these physical checks take place, who are the officials who actually carry them out and to whom are they responsible?
Steve Wearne: Those are the port health authorities. I cannot recall off the top of my head whom they are accountable to, but I am happy to provide a note on that.
Neil Parish: We need to be absolutely certain about any information that is going from you to that port health authority to inspect those lorries, those containers, and how that information gets back through the authority, so we can act quickly.
Q150 Chair: You say that, when this meat arrives, Mr Wearne, from a third country, you have all the documentation.
Steve Wearne: There is a requirement for meat and meat products-what in European terminology are called products of animal origin-to be prenotified to the importing port, so that the port health officials can take a view on what checks they want to do on those consignments. As I said, they may be documentary and physical checks.
Q151 Chair: Do you have dogs sniffing at port to see if there is any illegal meat being imported?
Steve Wearne: I cannot recall whether that occurs at every port, but certainly I know that, at Gatwick for example, they do have dogs that detect meat. They are primarily deployed to look at personal baggage and potential personal imports coming in. Yes, dogs are deployed in official controls in that way.
Q152 Chair: Just in connection with Mr Parish’s question on third countries, are these checks not done at the port of exit-the exporting port?
Mr Heath: They would normally be required to be done at both. I can speak for the operation in reverse. We spend a lot of our time in certification of meat products going to third countries outside the EU from UK producers. We have a unit in Carlisle that looks at this. They have to have veterinary inspection. There are differing requirements for differing countries, but it is all done extremely thoroughly and is a necessary prerequisite of getting permission to actually ship.
Q153 Chair: It would just be helpful for the purposes of this inquiry to have a detailed written briefing.
Mr Heath: I am very happy to provide that.
Chair: I am aware it used to be Article 36-that you could inspect and stop plant or animal food products coming in-but it would be very helpful for us to have more details.
Mr Heath: Would it be helpful to set out all of the powers we have in terms of inspection at ports of entry?
Chair: Yes, please.
Q154 Neil Parish: Can I just have a quick clarification? I understand you would not want to stop all EU lorries coming in-I accept that-but I would like to check that you have the powers. If you have the intelligence to believe there could be a problem, I am pretty certain the powers are there for you to be able to inspect, so I would like that checked out, please.
Mr Heath: As I say, I know for a fact-because I see it across my desk every month in reports of where there have been inspections for disease and the diseases that have been found-that certainly on animal, plant and human health grounds, we have those powers. I will check to be absolutely sure whether we have it in terms of authenticity, because that is a more difficult area as far as EU law is concerned.
Q155 Chair: On third country imports, do you do spot checks?
Steve Wearne: Spot checks at what point?
Chair: At point of entry into the United Kingdom.
Steve Wearne: Yes, there are those checks at ports-documentary and physical checks.
Q156 Chair: What form would the physical check take?
Steve Wearne: The physical check may take the form of a visual inspection of the material. It may also include sampling for analysis.
Q157 Thomas Docherty: There is obviously a lot of confusion about what we are talking about here. Let us try to clear a couple of things up. It is not an issue of food safety, is it?
Anna Soubry: In this case, it is not.
Q158 Thomas Docherty: Without getting into the pros and cons of horse meat versus other meat, it is not a question of nutrition, is it?
Anna Soubry: No.
Q159 Thomas Docherty: So it is a question of composition.
Anna Soubry: Absolutely, yes, and a label not accurately reflecting the contents of the product.
Q160 Thomas Docherty: At a stretch, it is possibly a question of origin.
Mr Heath: Maybe.
Q161 Thomas Docherty: It is difficult from my perspective to understand-this is where Ms Soubry is off the hook, she will be pleased to know-how this is not a Defra responsibility rather than an FSA responsibility. If you look at, as I am sure you both have-the Prime Minister’s WMS from 20 July 2010 and the press release that was issued jointly by Defra, FSA and DH-very clearly my interpretation is that responsibility was transferred to Defra, because this is composition.
Mr Heath: Let me try to take us down this road again. Clearly, as I say, in this case there was not a health issue although, until tests were done, that could not be discounted. Then tests were done and it was discounted. It was healthy horse meat. It was simply not as described.
Q162 Neil Parish: It does not need to be healthy horse meat, because horse meat could be treated with all sorts of things.
Mr Heath: Exactly, but in this instance it was tested by the Irish authorities, and they found that there was no reason to be concerned on health grounds.
As I said, we have responsibility for policy in this area. The FSA is the body that implements that policy in terms of checks and works very closely with trading standards officers, who are very often, at local authority level, the people who do the analysis and the testing. That is a very close working relationship and I see no problem with that. If we were to change our policy and say that they are not to test anything, then, yes, that would be our responsibility, but the day-to-day operation is a matter for the Food Standards Agency. I think everybody understands that that is the case. [Interruption.] You don’t understand it?
Q163 Thomas Docherty: I know Lord Rooker does not understand that either. Can I take you back to the press release that was issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 20 July? The headline is "Food Standards Agency to keep crucial safety role". I will not take up your time by reading the whole thing out, but you are not disagreeing with me that it talks about "food safety", "food safety, "food safety". The FSA "retains a clearly defined departmental function focussed on its core remit of food safety", then it has a quote from Lord Rooker, and then it says DH’s responsibilities fall into nutrition policy and pressing to improve the health of the nation. I understand that role.
On Defra, it says, "Countryoforigin labelling will transfer to Defra. This will support delivery of,"-wait for it-"the Government’s commitment to deliver honesty in food labelling and ensure that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from... Ministers’ firm commitment to support and develop British farming …other policy areas… include composition policy, which is about agreeing the components and standards for characterising products," including "meat content of sausages". Mr Heath, I obviously did not have the benefit of an Oxford University education, as I know you did, but in my simple mind, and that actually of most people watching this, that means that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for food composition.
Mr Heath: You said several times in that bit that you read out the word "policy". I think most people do understand there is a difference between policy and implementation. The Home Office is responsible for policy in matters of crime and criminal jurisdiction, but it is the police who go out and arrest people. The FSA are the people who go out and do the job for us, within the constructs of our policy. I genuinely do not see why this is an insurmountable difficulty in terms of understanding.
Q164 Thomas Docherty: Clearly Lord Rooker was struggling to understand it last week, because the line in the FSA was, "This is a Defra matter." Actually, if you want to use the Home Office analogy, it is the Secretary of State who has responsibility for the Border Agency; it is not punted off to the UKBA to say, "It is nothing to do with us." Specifically, Mr Heath, the press release that was issued by your Department, cosigned by the Department of Health and cosigned by the FSA, says that the FSA is responsible for food safety. Nobody is suggesting this is a food safety matter. It is a composition matter, which is what the Department pillaged off the FSA in July 2010, when it moved 23 civil servants back to Defra. Even if you think you are not confused, do you understand why lowly MPs, journalists and the FSA are all confused as to whose responsibility it is?
Anna Soubry: Are they?
Mr Heath: I am not sure whether they are but, if they are, as I say, I can only keep on repeating it. The people who were moved were policy formation officials. They were people who were working on the policy. There were also people who commission the research into new techniques for testing, for instance, and have done an extremely good job on the basis of the authenticity research that we have done, in terms of commissioning £450,000 a year in putting together new tests. But the people who actually do the job are not those officials who are sitting behind desks in Defra. It is the excellent work done by the FSA and by trading standards officers across the country, who actually do the testing. That is a crucial distinction.
Steve Wearne: I do not believe that anyone in the FSA is confused.
Thomas Docherty: Lord Rooker thinks differently.
Steve Wearne: I do not believe anyone in the FSA is confused. You read out what the responsibilities were, as set out in that document. In terms of practical implementation, what we provide in the FSA, in terms of food labelling composition and standards, is the link from central government to local authorities, because it is the local authorities that are responsible for ontheground enforcement and for taking the samples. That is why, for example, in the local authority surveillance programmes that are undertaken, where between the three departments we set priorities for what needs to be undertaken and provide funding for local authorities, all three departments participate in setting those priorities. We hold the ring. We manage that relationship between central government and local government on these issues of food authenticity, composition and labelling.
Q165 Thomas Docherty: Okay, let me try two quick, hopefully, questions. Ms Soubry, Mr Heath, do you think it is a matter of regret that that press release and the WMS that went alongside it from the Prime Minister did not, at any point, mention the word "implementation"?
Mr Heath: I am not sure it is entirely appropriate or careerenhancing for me to criticise press releases from the Prime Minister, but I think it was understood by all those who were close to it-and perhaps insufficiently understood by others-what was meant by that. If you look at the situation that pertained immediately before that transfer of officials, there would have been no difference. You would still be asking me these questions under these circumstances, as Minister for Agriculture, and you would have expected me to have had the same contact with the FSA on these issues. It is simply that I would not have had the benefit of advice from officials in my department, who would have been situated in the FSA. I would have had the benefit of advice from officials in the FSA. That is the difference, and it is not a significant difference, I would suggest to you, in terms of delivery of the programme of interdiction and investigation.
Q166 Thomas Docherty: My final question-because I think, Ms Soubry, he has given a very eloquent answer that you seem to be agreeing with-is, who do you both think is responsible for safeguarding public confidence in the composition of the food that my constituents and your constituents buy in their supermarkets?
Mr Heath: You can answer that on different levels. If you are talking about it in ministerial or governmental terms, we share that responsibility. I was criticised last week for having expressed a view that most producers, processors and retailers in this country actually do a good job of ensuring that good quality food is on people’s plates-[Interruption.] If I may just finish, that was because I was perceived as being a Minister responsible for a producer interest. That was the reason that the FSA was taken away from the then MAFF and placed in the position that it was, so I certainly do think I have a responsibility there. But I come back to the point that I also think that the prime responsibility lies with people who produce food. They have an absolute responsibility to the people to whom they sell that food to make sure that it is wholesome and that it is what they say it is on the packet. We must not get away from that basic responsibility.
Q167 Thomas Docherty: I am trying to be helpful. What I mean is, if I were to ask who was responsible for food safety in the Government triangle, I would say it is the FSA. Who is responsible for raising the quality of nutrition? It would be the parliamentary UnderSecretary of State. If I was asking about who was responsible for animal welfare, I think I am right in saying it is Defra.
Mr Heath: Indeed. You have encapsulated it.
Q168 Thomas Docherty: Quite frankly the composition itself is not a matter of nutrition; it is not a matter of animal welfare; and it is not a matter of safety. The composition, to use the Prime Minister’s favourite analogy, is that it does what it says on the tin. Who is responsible? Is it FSA? Is it Defra? Is it DH? Whose, sir and ma’am, is that responsibility?
Mr Heath: In policy terms, it is quite clear that it rests with my department. The way in which we ensure that is to use the FSA and the local authorities to check and make sure that there is compliance.
Anna Soubry: In the Department of Health, if we are needed, because we will raise our own concerns in any event, then we fit into it. If there is a health issue there-in this case, as it happens, there was not, but there could have been-then we play our part as well. As I said at the beginning, our officials talk to each other. We talk to each other. I meet with the FSA, for example, and that shows that there is no reason why it should not work as it is currently constructed.
Chair: I think we have got there.
Q169 Dan Rogerson: Now we have established, beyond any doubt whatsoever, where the responsibility lies for labelling policy with regard to composition-it is with Defra-one of the terms of reference for our inquiry is the effectiveness of traceability, labelling and hygiene standards in the food supply chain. Responsibility for labelling when it comes to composition is a Defra thing. I asked Lord Rooker and Ms Brown earlier on how they decide where to target their resources in terms of this issue. Clearly we have got something here now, which may involve a bit of work, in terms of DNA in meat. How do you decide what other food groups you would want to look at, in terms of the priority for you? When I asked the FSA, they said it would be a discussion with Defra as to where they are going to look next. How would you decide that?
Mr Heath: First of all, it is intelligenceled, to an extent. I do not want to minimise that because, if we believe that there is a risk of adulteration, then we will follow that up with the authorities. Let me just give you a few examples of what has been done in recent years by the Department, in terms of following up adulteration. We have looked at the adulteration of buffalo milk with cow’s milk, the adulteration of fruit juice with sugar and water, and the adulteration of maize with rapeseed oil. We have a system now for identifying the origin of basmati rice, the speciation of meat and fish, undeclared offal and blood proteins in meat products, the origin of beef, British traditional cattle and pig breeds, fish origin, and previously frozen chicken.
Dan Rogerson: It is a good list.
Mr Heath: It is a good list, and the reason it is a good list is that we take this very seriously and we have developed the techniques that enable us to do that, via the FSA and the local authorities, to make sure that, as far as possible, we can give the assurance that the Committee is asking for.
Q170 Dan Rogerson: My question was about the process. That is the history of it. I do not want to make references to horses having bolted, because that would be unfortunate, but what we need to look at is the process in the future, as to where we go next. I just wondered who is involved in those discussions and how the intelligence comes.
Steve Wearne: There is a national coordinated and riskbased sampling programme, and the criteria that apply are set out. The top four, and I hope this helps the Committee, are that there is evidence of a particular food or animal feed concern; that the issue relates to public health or consumer protection, labelling of course being a consumer protection issue from fraud; that the issue is enforceable, so that when we get results we can do something with them; and that analytical methods are readily available. Those are the criteria we apply, and we reach judgments, as a result of applying those and other criteria, as to what the priorities should be.
Dan Rogerson: Enforceability was an interesting one there.
Chair: Thank you. Now we are moving on to the capacity of public bodies.
Q171 Mrs Glindon: Over the period of the Comprehensive Spending Review, the actual budget of the FSA’s Meat Hygiene Service was reduced by £12 million. Could you say exactly what impact that has had on frontline services?
Steve Wearne: Yes, I can. We believe it has had no impact because, over the past five years, through a range of efficiency measures we have undertaken, we have saved £34 million in the frontline delivery of services.
Q172 Mrs Glindon: How have the efficiencies ensured that? You said you have saved £34 million. Is the Meat Hygiene Service as good as it was? What would lead to such massive efficiencies that would make a difference?
Steve Wearne: Yes, we believe it is. It is not just one thing we have done but a number of things. We merged the Meat Hygiene Service back into the Food Standards Agency, which, on its own, saved over £1.5 million a year in backoffice savings. We have restructured the way that the new Operations Group within the Food Standards Agency, which incorporates the former MHS, works. We have relet all of our contracts where we buy in services from others relating to inspection and official controls, and yet we still have people in every single abattoir and cutting plant, operating the same controls they did, with 100% presence in abattoirs. We have achieved that level of efficiency while maintaining the same level of public protection.
Q173 Mrs Glindon: Would you dispute some of the information that has come from trade unions in relation to the standard of the veterinary service within the abattoirs-that it has actually fallen and that there are some practices that would not be considered as good as they were previously?
Steve Wearne: Yes, we would, but it is important to draw the distinction that, in the issue of the presence of horse DNA or horse meat in burgers, we are not talking about produce from UK abattoirs. We are talking about the food chain that the Committee is now familiar with-from Poland to Ireland and then the finished product into the UK.
Q174 Mrs Glindon: But it could be because horses are slaughtered in UK abattoirs too.
Steve Wearne: Horses are indeed slaughtered in UK abattoirs; the majority of them go for export. The same controls apply to the production of meat hygienically, whether it is a horse, a cow, a sheep or a pig.
Q175 Mrs Glindon: Could I also ask you what assessment you have made of the impact of the loss of the 700 trading standards officers over a threeyear period?
Mr Heath: Can I say first of all you need to distinguish between the number of trading standards officers and those who are actually working in the field of food safety? The two are not identical. I am sure your Committee will have evidence on that. The actual reduction, in terms of the number who are working on food safety across the country, is very substantially less. I have not got the precise figures in front of me, but my recollection is that it was about 2% fewer this year than last year, and about 6% fewer this year than two years ago. It is a reduction, but not the sort some people have quoted-of a third having disappeared. That is simply not the case in terms of food protection.
It is something that we should be concerned about as Ministers. Obviously decisions are taken by local authorities across the country, and I do not diminish the difficulties that many local authorities have, in terms of balancing their budgets. I would simply suggest to them that this is a very high priority in their work; they should take great care before losing people by removing food inspection or reducing food inspection on the part of their trading standards officers, who are involved in the essential protection of the public.
Q176 Mrs Glindon: Would you think the reduction could have had any impact on the issue we are discussing today?
Mr Heath: Certainly not in terms of what happened in Ireland-no, I do not think it does. There has been a small reduction in the number of samples taken. There have actually been more tests as a result of those samples, because of the improved technology that we have available now. It is a slightly murky picture, but I am not going to resile from the fact that it does concern me that we are losing professionals out there who are part of the network that we require and rely on to do the work.
Q177 Mrs Glindon: Has funding for food safety surveillance been reduced?
Mr Heath: Sorry, in what terms? Everything we are talking about is surveillance of one form or another.
Q178 Chair: Most of the surveillance is actually done by local authorities. We have established that there has been a reduction in Meat Hygiene Service officers. Would you accept there has been a reduction in surveillance?
Mr Heath: There has been a reduction. It is not as great as has been reported, and your Committee will no doubt want to take evidence on clear figures. Certainly we can provide the information that has been available to me. As I say, it does concern me and I am not going to make any pretence about that, because we do rely on local authorities to provide a lot of the foot soldiers who do this work.
Q179 Barry Gardiner: Mr Heath, you took up your post in September of last year. Is that right?
Mr Heath: Yes.
Q180 Barry Gardiner: It was you who would have signed off as Minister on the impact assessment dated 10 October for the FIC, Food Information to Consumers, SI. Correct? Could you just explain to the Committee what QUID means in that context?
Mr Heath: I think, Mr Gardiner, as you would expect me to say, I would have appreciated notice of a specific case in an impact assessment on an SI that I signed about four months ago. If you would like to send it to me, I will send you a response.
Q181 Barry Gardiner: I am very happy to assist you. I am referring to the preferred option that you signed off on, which was: "Remove current burden on business by making current requirements on Quantitative Ingredient Declaration (QUID) and name of food on nonprepacked food voluntary".
Mr Heath: Mr Gardiner, as I say, you are asking me to comment on an impact assessment that I would want to look at again before I give you a response.
Barry Gardiner: Your department has a consultation out on this.
Mr Heath: If the Committee would like to ask me the question in writing, I will give you a response.
Chair: If it is a technical aspect, it is only fair to ask in writing.
Q182 Barry Gardiner: It is not a technical aspect at all, Chair. Let me ask you this then, Minister. If you do not know that, I am sure that you are aware that your Government at the moment is consulting on a derogation from the Food Information to Consumers regulation from the EU, and that derogation is intended for "minced meat that does not meet the composition requirements of" Food Information to Consumers. Milk is the other derogation that you are asking for. "In the case of minced meat, producers that take advantage of the derogation will have to indicate that they are doing so by use of a national mark, compliant with the provisions of Article 13.2." Your preferred signedoff option that you are consulting on is to allow purveyors of minced meat a derogation from having to declare the quantitative ingredients of their product on the label. This is policy and that is your preferred option, and yet you said to the Committee only 15 minutes ago that food suppliers have an absolute responsibility to ensure that food must be what it says it is on the packet. You have signed off on a preferred option, in the impact assessment and the consultation that your department is putting out, actually allowing them not to put that on the packet. How can that be?
Mr Heath: You are asking me to comment on, as I say, a specific area that is out for consultation. I will await the responses. We have followed for some time a policy that actually involves earned recognition in terms of deregulation, where possible. It is entirely consistent with having good systems of audit, safety and composition. As I say, Miss McIntosh, if Mr Gardiner has precise questions on that, then I am very happy to give him a response in due course, but I do not think it is in any way out of kilter with the general thrust of what I have been saying.
Q183 Barry Gardiner: How is it that the Government is going to ensure that labelling, for which your department has responsibility in policy terms, is going to contain accurate information that the consumer can rely on about the composition of the product that is in the packet, given your preferred option is to give them a derogation not to do that?
Mr Heath: Miss McIntosh, I prefer to hold consultations, look at the responses and then come to a decision, rather than come to a decision and then explain it to Mr Gardiner.
Barry Gardiner: I am not asking about the decision, Mr Heath. I am asking about your preference. The Government has declared a preference.
Anna Soubry: This is misleading.
Chair: I am sure you can respond in this way. I think we have established that Defra-
Thomas Docherty: Chair, can I just say the Minister has just accused Mr Gardiner of being misleading? I think she wants to withdraw that remark.
Anna Soubry: I am very concerned to have something put in evidence that I am certainly not aware of and Mr Heath is not aware of-[Interruption.] Mr Gardiner, let me finish.
Barry Gardiner: He signed off on it.
Anna Soubry: Mr Gardiner, let me finish.
Anna Soubry: On the words that were given, Miss McIntosh, I am not sure that it would actually refer to frozen beef burgers, in this situation. As I know you would want to ensure, Miss McIntosh, it is very important that Ministers have the ability to answer questions on the basis of fact and information.
Chair: Order. Can we just bring it back to what we are discussing today?
Q184 Thomas Docherty: Will she withdraw the remark that Mr Gardiner was misleading? I am not going to sit here and call you a liar, and you just called Mr Gardiner a liar.
Anna Soubry: I think he is misleading Mr Heath.
Q185 Chair: Mr Heath, I think you would accept that the burger was not properly labelled.
Mr Heath: Of course.
Q186 Chair: We have a situation where there was contamination of the beef burger with horse meat in it. What I think Mr Gardiner is trying to establish is how we can avoid that happening in the future. It goes to the heart of your honest labelling policy. If you would like to answer, either in the context of the consultation or directly, how can we ensure that the consumer has honest, clear and accurate labelling?
Mr Heath: That is clearly our objective.
Q187 Chair: I think you will find that you have failed in this instance. We need to know how it happened and why it will not happen again.
Mr Heath: With respect, the labelling did not occur within my jurisdiction.
Q188 Chair: I am sorry; the labelling did occur in your jurisdiction. The labelling occurred on foodstuffs that came into possibly Dalepak but certainly two major retailers we have spoken to, and it is possibly wider than that. Let us just stop there and see how we are actually going to account for the fact that the labelling was dishonest and try to make it more accurate going forward.
Mr Heath: That is, I hope, our shared intention, and it is certainly something I want to discuss with major retailers across the country and major processors. I have already spoken to the meat processors as to how they can improve their lines of inquiry to make sure that they can avoid this happening again. It is in everyone’s interest that labels say what they say on the cover. The objection I have to Mr Gardiner’s line of questioning was that he was seeking to adduce as evidence a consultation that is not yet completed, where he was then presuming an outcome and then asserting that that was in contradiction to our shared objective. I do not believe that is the case.
Chair: Could we just continue this line of questioning?
Q189 Barry Gardiner: Let me be clear: I was not adducing the consultation; I was adducing the impact assessment, which you signed off. However, what are the EU’s proposals for changing the labelling requirements?
Mr Heath: That is under discussion at the moment. It will involve some changes to what is required in terms of making sure that additional meat content is added to the label. I think that is entirely right and I look forward to it being implemented.
Q190 Barry Gardiner: Why is it then, Mr Heath, that your preferred option in the impact assessment is that suppliers should have a derogation from that requirement?
Mr Heath: I think we are going round in circles, Miss McIntosh.
Q191 Chair: This does go to the heart of the question.
Mr Heath: No it does not.
Chair: I am very proud, for one, as a Conservative, of the labelling provisions that we have brought out. Clearly, the consumer needs to have confidence that the label does reflect the contents of the burger. In this instance, we can clearly say that it did not. If there is a proposal currently in the EU, then presumably it will be your department and you who will be leading for this.
Mr Heath: In fact, the Secretary of State.
Q192 Chair: Do we know at what stage those negotiations and discussions are?
Mr Heath: I will write to you with the details.
Q193 Chair: We understand that the regulation has been passed and the consultation now is on how it will be implemented.
Mr Heath: It is the implementation.
Q194 Chair: You are here today to answer questions on this. We would like to know the deadline for the responses to the consultation. You cannot obviously preempt the responses, but we would like to know what position you took in negotiations with the EU when the Directive was adopted.
Mr Heath: We are broadly supportive. I understand it was before my time that these actual matters were discussed, but I believe we were broadly supportive of it. We are in a process, though, of attempting, where possible, to ensure simpler and easier compliance with regulation. What Mr Gardiner is quoting from is an attempt to see whether there are avenues of making sure of assurances at a prior stage, in order to make sure that that is the case. We will look at the responses and then take a decision.
Q195 Barry Gardiner: Just one final question then, Chair. If it is the case that it is still an open question as to which way the Government will decide to go about these derogations, why is it that there are only two options available and both of them would have those derogations?
Mr Heath: That is the purpose of consultation. It is to listen to what people have to say.
Barry Gardiner: Both of them have the same derogations.
Chair: The Committee would be concerned, if we found that there has been a lapse of labelling, that we are now trying to legislate our way out of labelling.
Mr Heath: Yes, of course. Miss McIntosh, I am trying to work with the Committee, but I am not going to be ambushed with the precise details of an impact assessment.
Q196 Neil Parish: One of the great weaknesses in a processed product is that, very often, it is just labelled as "processed in the EU" or processed in a certain country. We have never really been able to get to the bottom of where those ingredients come from in a processed burger or whatever. Are you pressing for greater clarity in the label?
Mr Heath: That, as you know, is absolutely at the forefront of the Government’s policy. Where something comes from ought to be a key piece of information. That is important for a number of reasons. It is important because it gives the consumer confidence in what they are buying. It may be important in welfare terms, because some countries have higher levels of animal welfare, and this country is one of those that has generally high levels of animal welfare. I think people are looking for produce with a high animal welfare content and are entitled to that information. I also think that some practices in the past have actually been clearly misleading.
Neil Parish: And done to mislead.
Mr Heath: They are deliberately misleading. This is perhaps an unfair illustration, because I do not want to upset anyone particularly, but I was talking, for instance, to the English wine producers the other day. They were pointing out, as they have done repeatedly, that if you talk about British wine, there are two mistakes in that labelling. One is that it is not British and the other is that it is not wine.
Q197 Thomas Docherty: Mr Heath, this morning in the Westminster Hall debate you said that the 6.1% reduction in the number of trading standards officers engaged in UK food enforcement was concerning. We would all welcome that recognition by you. Beyond writing to councils, what concrete steps do you intend to undertake to reverse that decline?
Mr Heath: I think it is very difficult, and I make no bones about that, because we do have devolved systems of local government in this country, and it is for local authorities to take the decisions as to how best to serve their local populations. I think that they ought to take very seriously exactly the points that we are discussing here about the importance and, indeed, the priority that this area of work should enjoy, and see it as a priority over some of the other things that they do. That is my view. It is one that I am very happy to communicate but, at the end of the day, the people who will take these decisions are people in county halls and city halls around the country. I hope that all of us, as Members of Parliament, will be asking our local authority what they have done on this subject recently, if they have reduced the number of inspectors working in this area and, if they have, why they see that as a lower priority than some of the other activities that they continue to do.
Q198 Chair: I know you will have heard that Tesco claimed today that there was just a high level of contamination on a single day. Do you accept that assertion?
Mr Heath: I accept nothing until I have the evidence to support it. I am perfectly happy to say, as far as Tesco is concerned, that they were very quick to investigate and very quick to take action but, until I have evidence, I am unable to either support or refute the suggestion. I do not know whether Steve has better evidence.
Steve Wearne: The evidence is what we want to get to. You said, Chair, it was probable that the Polish product containing horse meat had been in use for up to a year, since May. We do not know that. What we do know is there was one consignment with this adulteration and that that plant in Poland had been supplying Silvercrest since May last year. We need to understand, as a matter of urgency, whether any of the other product from that Polish plant may have been similarly adulterated, and then understand the impact that that may or may not have had on food on sale in the UK.
Q199 Chair: Is that not rather late? It has passed; how are you going to be able to test it?
Steve Wearne: It has passed, but it is normal practice for processors and retailers, as Trish Twohig was explaining to the Committee in the second session, to retain samples of product they have produced and ingredients that they have kept. We are working in each case, with Hertfordshire County Council in the case of Tesco and with Flintshire Council in the case of Iceland, to understand what controls those two companies had in place, whether there were any failures and what further action might be taken.
Q200 Chair: On that specific point, which law would have been broken?
Steve Wearne: Until we know what has gone on, it is difficult to identify any particular law. There is a general requirement in European food law regarding labelling. That sets out that businesses have the responsibility to ensure that the food they produce is safe and is properly labelled. That provides the basis, if you like the framework, for us to consider the question of whether any laws have been broken.
Q201 Chair: Minister, earlier you said the retailer was responsible for testing and for selling what should be beef burgers. Would it be for the original suppliers to be prosecuted for meat supplied to the UK, or does it rely on a civil prosecution? Would the action be against the meat processor or the retailer?
Mr Heath: There are a number of hypotheticals there. In terms of litigation, obviously that is a matter between the civil parties, the contracting parties, which would include the retailer and the processor, and may include those further back along the supply chain. In terms of prosecution as an offence in this country, there are general provisions in the Food Safety Act 1990, General Food Regulations 2004 and Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, all of which make it an offence to label or present food in a false or misleading way. That is what retailers need to be aware of. That is where their legal responsibility lies in presenting for food something that may be labelled contrary to those regulations. That is the key element as far as the retailer is concerned. As far as the processor is concerned, there are wider aspects of law that may come into play.
Q202 Chair: Can I just say, on behalf of the Committee, Minister Soubry, Minister Heath and Mr Wearne, we are very grateful for your being present. It does leave a lot of questions hanging in the air. The Committee would be grateful for the written briefing that you promised to give us earlier but, mindful of the fact that you have established that labelling is the most likely offence, we would certainly like to know a little bit more of the understanding behind this quantitative ingredients labelling and any future thinking that the Government might have on that, as to how that particular regulation might apply to the UK.
Mr Heath: Miss McIntosh, could I say, anything the Committee would like, in terms of further written evidence, I am more than happy to ensure that the Department provides?
Chair: We are very grateful. Thank you to the Committee as well. Thank you all very much.