SCOTLAND’S food standards minister has gone on the offensive against big supermarkets, arguing that the way they have handled the horsemeat scandal raises “fundamental questions about the way they do business”.
Richard Lochhead said he was “perplexed” at the way major retailers had dealt with the crisis, in which supermarkets including Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland have all been forced to withdraw products after testing revealed traces of horsemeat. The SNP minister also accused them of complacency and challenged them to change their methods of sourcing food supplies to protect consumers.
The Food Standards Agency yesterday admitted that the number of people in the UK who have unwittingly eaten horsemeat may never be known after it was revealed that several large catering firms had also discovered horsemeat in their products.
Writing in today’s Scotland on Sunday, Lochhead said: “I have urged [major retailers] to reconsider their sourcing policies in light of this ongoing incident.
“I am genuinely perplexed by their response to this issue, which raises fundamental questions about the way they do business.
“I would have expected emergency board room meetings to discuss their sourcing and purchasing policies. From my conversations with them, that doesn’t seem to have been happening.”
He added: “They need to consider how to shorten their supply chains as well and source more of their product locally,” he said. “They, and every other company who sources or supplies food, have an important job to do in restoring consumer confidence.”
Fiona Moriarty, director of the Scottish Retail Consor-tium, rejected the accusation that supermarkets had acted complacently during the crisis.
“Our members have taken this issue extremely seriously, dealing with it at board level from day one,” she said.
“The decisive, extensive action that’s been taken to deal with incidents and gather data, including carrying out over a thousand tests in just three weeks – is being driven by chief executives who are working to understand what’s happened and what needs to be done. Customers can be absolutely confident retailers are scrutinising their sourcing, systems and intelligence gathering.”
In a sign that some retailers are responding to the crisis, Tesco yesterday issued a statement saying that it was reviewing its supply chain and would shortly launch a new website that would allow customers to view its product testing programme.
“We pledge that over the weeks and months ahead, we will open up our supply chain, and give you more information than any retailer has before to enable you to make informed choices about the food you buy for your family,” said Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke.
It came as a parliamentary question revealed that the number of FSA tests carried out on Scottish food has fallen by almost a third since 2009.
Labour’s Gregg McClymont, who submitted the question on how many tests the FSA has conducted throughout Scotland in each of the last five years, said the fall from 19,367 tests in 2009/10 to 13,602 tests in 2011/12 is indicative of UK and Scottish governments “sleepwalking” into the horse meat scandal.
“The reduction in lab tests across Scotland is indicative of two governments who have sleepwalked into this scandal. The Scottish Government had the power to intervene in food standards and have stood back and done nothing.
“The Scottish Government promised a new Scottish agency which never appeared, while the UK have sat back while the number of tests across Scotland has fallen.”
The FSA published the results of 2,501 tests on beef products on sale in supermarkets across the UK on Friday which revealed that 29 contained more than 1 per cent unlabelled horsemeat.
The positive tests related to seven products which have already been withdrawn from sale.
No traces of horsemeat have been found so far in food supplied to Scottish schools, prisons and hospitals.
Lochhead said tests were continuing in Scotland and the vast majority were expected to be completed within the next week.