THE Scottish Government last night urged people to eat Scottish beef, amid mounting pressure on ministers to do more to protect the nation’s “cornerstone” industry from the growing horsemeat scandal.
Farmers are due to hold talks today with food standards minister Richard Lochhead, along with the head of Scotland’s Food Standards Agency and retailers, amid concern that public fears over contaminated food could damage their business.
Yesterday, after politicians south of the Border encouraged people to buy local produce, Mr Lochhead advised consumers in Scotland to “look for the Scotch label” to be assured of “some of the best meat available”.
His statement followed criticism from opposition MSPs, who accused him of failing to use devolved powers on food standards to protect the sector and restore public confidence.
Speaking after “helpful” talks by telephone with UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson yesterday, Mr Lochhead said: “It is unacceptable that consumers are being misled and this cannot be tolerated.
“Given that the relevant labelling regulations are set at EU level, I discussed with Mr Paterson the need to fully engage the European Commission. It is also vital that this issue is firmly on the agenda of Europe’s agricultural ministers, so consumers can be assured that action is being taken to make sure there is no repeat of the horsemeat scandal.
“It is important to point out that not all products containing beef have been affected. Products with the Scotch label are accredited under farm-assured schemes and are amongst the best quality that be found anywhere.
“I urge customers to look for the Scotch label to ensure they are able to enjoy some of the best meat products in the marketplace.”
He repeated the view that the issue was about mislabelling products and potential fraud rather than any health risk, with no evidence of any harm to people who have eaten contaminated goods.
The National Farmers’ Union Scotland welcomed the minister’s support following days of unhappiness in the sector.
A spokesman said: “The mood among farmers has been of anger and frustration.
“Beef is the cornerstone of the Scottish food industry, with 20 per cent of agricultural output from the beef sector.
“Farmers have put a lot of effort into the Scottish beef brand and reputation, meeting traceability requirements driven by retailers, and then they look at something like this, involving cost-cutting and possible criminality, which could damage or taint their industry and is largely out of their control.”
Earlier yesterday, the chair of Westminster’s environment, food and rural affairs committee, Conservative MP Anne McIntosh made a similar plea for people across the UK to support local producers.
She said: “I think the clear message is none of our meat, none of our slaughter houses, are implicated and we should be buying as local as possible.”
Repeating calls for a ban on importing meat from the EU, she added: “I believe there should be a moratorium on the movement of all meat until such time as we can trace the source of contamination.”
However, Mr Paterson said that under EU rules a ban could only be introduced if beef contaminated with horsemeat was found to be a health risk.
He added that no such evidence had been found, but if further tests confirmed fears of a health risk, he would “take the necessary action”.
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) ordered food companies to analyse all processed beef products for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone – which is used to treat horses for arthritis but can be harmful to humans – after it emerged last week that some Findus meals contained up to 100 per cent horsemeat.
Frozen foods firm Findus, which has taken its beef lasagne, made by French food supplier Comigel, off the shelves, said it was considering taking legal action against its suppliers as an internal investigation “strongly suggests” the contamination “was not accidental”.
Tesco and Aldi have also withdrawn a range of ready meals produced by Comigel over fears that they contained contaminated meat.
The scandal has spread all over the continent as details of an elaborate supply chain in the meat industry emerged.
French consumer safety authorities have said companies from Romania, Cyprus and the Netherlands as well as its own firms were involved. Romanian authorities are investigating, while their Dutch counterparts said they are ready to do so if necessary.
Beef products suspected of containing horsemeat have been withdrawn from shops in Ireland, Sweden and France.
Mr Paterson has admitted that the scandal may get worse as test results, due this Friday, could reveal further traces of horsemeat.
Mr Paterson sought to lay the lion’s share of the blame on continental Europe. He said: “This week obviously we’ll be talking to counterparts across Europe, because ultimately this is EU incompetence.”
Responding to renewed calls for a ban on importing meat, he added: “That is not allowed within the European common market. If they find there is a product that could potentially be injurious to public health, emphatically, I will take the necessary action.”
In Scotland, meanwhile, the Green Party increased the pressure on the SNP, asking why a consultation promised before the end of last year on giving the Scottish FSA new responsibilities on meat inspection had still not been published.
Alison Johnstone, Lothian Green MSP, said: “The public and Scottish meat producers deserve a clear statement from the Scottish minister for food.
“The minister needs to set out his vision for a food system that we can all trust. The approach of both governments has been largely reactive, and I want to know more about what regular inspections are carried out along the food chain.”
The criticism follows an attack by other opposition parties in Scotland yesterday, who accused Mr Lochhead of “falling asleep on the job”, alleging that he was failing to use devolved powers on food standards to adequately protect the beef industry and reassure consumers.
Mr Lochhead has repeated assurances that “no manufacturers in Scotland” were currently affected.
He issued his call for the public to trust Scottish beef ahead of the meeting with farmers, retailers and environmental health experts at the NFU Scotland’s AGM in St Andrews today.
Asked again whether it could guaranteed that no horsemeat had been served in Scottish schools, hospitals and prisons, the SNP said yesterday that tests here included samples from public institutions.
Q. Should I throw away the meat I have bought if I suspect it might be horsemeat?
A. Horsemeat itself should be no more dangerous than beef and is eaten in many countries around the world. However, there is concern around a drug given to horses – phenylbutazone, known as bute – which can be dangerous when used by humans.
Decades ago it was used as a treatment for gout and arthritis, but it caused a serious blood disorder, aplastic anaemia, in rare cases. While it was banned for human use, it is still used for animals, though it is not allowed to enter the food chain. Findus has been asked to test for bute in its products.
If people have any of the affected meals lurking in their freezer, they are advised to return them to the store they were purchased from.
Q. What cases have there been so far?
A. In mid-January, Irish food inspectors announced they had found horsemeat in some burgers stocked by a number of UK supermarkets, including Tesco, Iceland and Lidl.
Two weeks later, pig DNA was found in supposedly halal products for Muslim prisoners.
Earlier this month, it was reported that equine DNA had been found at a third factory in Ireland and tests commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found horsemeat at a cold store in Newry, Co Down.
Now food retailers have been told to carry out tests on all processed beef products after some Findus lasagne was found to between 60 per cent and 100 per cent horsemeat. Aldi also said tests on some of its frozen lasagne and spaghetti bolognese showed they contained between 30 per cent and 100 per cent horsemeat.
Q. How will the testing be carried out?
A. As part of the sampling programme, the FSA has asked 28 local authorities across the UK to take 224 samples from meat intended for sale, in accordance with a detailed protocol.
The survey will use specialised analytical techniques to provide information about the presence of horse or pig DNA in a range of beef products available to UK consumers.
The FSA will publish the results from the study, including brand names, and will disclose any formal action taken.
A full analysis of the results of this survey will be published in April 2013.