SENIOR Conservative figures are at the centre of claims that the government failed to act two years ago on warnings horsemeat had entered the food chain.
At the time, Caroline Spelman was secretary of state in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Answering to Ms Spelman, Sir Jim Paice was agriculture and food minister in 2011, when, it is claimed, ministers ignored the warnings of contamination.
John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, which is now part of the Food Standards Agency, revealed he helped draft a letter to Defra which ministers disregarded.
The current environment secretary, Owen Paterson, yesterday ordered an investigation into the claims.
Mr Young said the letter was sent by Britain’s largest horsemeat exporter, High Peak Meat Exports, and warned the government that rogue horse flesh with possible drug residue was illegally entering the human food chain.
He said the letter warned the government that its passport scheme designed to stop meat containing the anti-inflamma-tory drug phenylbutazone (bute) getting into the food chain was not working, calling it a“debacle”.
“Defra gave nearly 80 organisations the authority to produce passports and some of them are little better than children could produce,” he said. “It’s a complete mess.”
Ms Spelman was unavailable for comment last night.
Sir Jim said he was not told about the letter. “I would like to know why on Earth I was not being told about it,” he said. “If this information was in Defra and was not being acted upon, it warrants further investigation.”
Sir Jim lost his position in September 2012, the same time as his former boss Ms Spelman was replaced by Mr Paterson as part of a ministerial reshuffle by Prime Minister David Cameron.
The revelation of the letter, which came to light yesterday, prompted Mr Paterson to ask the Food Standards Agency to investigate the claims.
“I have discussed it with the chief executive of the agency and she is going to go back through the records and see exactly what was said at the time,” he said.
A Defra spokesman responded that Mr Paterson had asked the Food Standards Agency’s chief executive and Defra officials to look into the allegations, insisting it was “clear Defra and the FSA have taken action on the issue … when information has been passed to us”.
The spokesman said: “In January 2012, Defra and the FSA increased checks on horse passports, meaning every horse was checked twice, and from last week no horse can enter the food chain until it is confirmed to be free of bute.”
The Food Standards Agency said it had submitted a “full file” on its horsemeat investigation to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, with information being analysed in 35 countries in Europe and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, UK local authorities were also criticised over their alleged role in the scandal.
Malcolm Walker, chief executive of frozen food firm Iceland, said the blame for contamination lay less with supermarkets and more with councils.
Iceland was among retailers, including Tesco, Asda, Lidl and Aldi, which withdrew products found to test positive for horse DNA.
He said: “British supermarkets have got a fantastic reputation for food safety; they go to enormous lengths to protect their brand.
“If we’re going to blame somebody, let’s start with local authorities because there’s a whole side to this industry which is invisible.
“That’s the catering industry. Schools, hospitals – it’s massive business for cheap food, and local authorities award contracts based purely on one thing: price.”
However, a spokesman for the Local Government Association denied the claims, saying: “The law is 100 per cent clear it is the responsibility of the manufacturer, supplier and retailer to make sure the product they sell us is what they say it is. There has been a major supply chain failure. That’s not the fault of consumers, councils or hospitals.”
The claim and counter-claim came as Mr Paterson called for a Europe-wide overhaul of food testing. He said the current system relied too heavily on trusting paperwork which came with meat shipments.
“The whole problem we have is that the system, which is laid down from above, trusts the paperwork,” he said.
“So it trusts the pallet conforms to the piece of paper. No-one checks what is on the pallet often enough. No-one checks what is in production often enough. No-one checks the finished product often enough.”
The Scottish Government yesterday said “detailed inspections and testing” continued across Scotland – including checks by companies which supply schools, hospital and prisons.
A spokesman confirmed that, to date, no mislabelled meat had been found in Scotland.
Rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead will today meet UK government officials and representatives from the meat industry to discuss the horsemeat issue further.
He said: “While the ongoing inspections and testing continues, it is important retailers and food service providers are also considering what further action they should be taking to restore the integrity of their supply chains and win back consumer confidence.”
Mr Lochhead urged retailers to review their purchasing practices and said they could avoid selling mislabelled horsemeat by sourcing their produce from Scotland.
Mr Paterson confirmed he is to meet representatives from Sainsbury’s, Morrison, Tesco, Asda, the Food and Drink Federation, and the Institute of Grocery Distribution this afternoon.
A Defra spokeswoman said the meeting was taking place to update officials on testing results and to find out more about what businesses were doing to restore consumer confidence.
Meanwhile, pub and hotel group Whitbread became the latest company to admit horse DNA had been found in its food, saying its meat lasagnes and beefburgers had been removed from menus.
Horsemeat was also discovered in school dinners, with cottage pies testing positive for horse DNA sent to 47 Lancashire schools before being withdrawn.
John Lewis-owned Waitrose announced that it would set up its own freezing plant to prevent cross-contamination.
Waitrose withdrew a number of products when the horsemeat scandal came to light. Although none of its products tested positive for horse DNA, some own-brand meatballs were found to contain traces of pork.
Managing director Mark Price urged the food industry to apply “renewed rigour” to their testing regimes. He said: “If something good comes of the current scandal, I hope it is the opening up of a debate around the true economics of food.
“The simple fact is that food cannot be seen as a cheap commodity when so many factors are working against that premise, including population growth.”