Richard Lochhead: Safeguard our high reputation

THE recent events across Europe, in which consumers have been buying products labelled beef unaware they contain horsemeat, are completely unacceptable.

THE recent events across Europe, in which consumers have been buying products labelled beef unaware they contain horsemeat, are completely unacceptable.

Consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label. It is outrageous that this would not be the case.

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Unlike elsewhere in the UK, there is no processing of horsemeat in Scotland and none of our food manufacturing firms have been implicated in the scandal.

However, to reassure consumers, when this issue first came to light in Ireland, the Scottish Government and the Food Standards Agency in Scotland swiftly implemented additional inspections in plants approved to manufacture processed meat products throughout Scotland.

Scotland was the first part of the UK to order these tests and mirrors the new European Union-wide meat testing regime, to be introduced with immediate effect, as agreed at a meeting in Brussels this week.

For these additional inspections, the FSA in Scotland asked all local authorities to visit approved meat processing establishments in their areas to ensure compliance against food standard requirements.

The vast majority of these additional inspections will be completed by 22 February. There is no evidence of horsemeat found in those undertaken to date.

Further testing is also being carried out on a UK basis by retailers, manufacturers and FSA – the first results of which were published on Friday and offer some reassurance that this issue is not widespread.

This wider FSA work on a UK-wide basis includes establishments which supply processed meat products to the public sector – but, again, there is absolutely no evidence to date that suggests any horsemeat has found its way into any school meals in Scotland.

However, it is vitally important that all the tests are completed as quickly as possible to bring absolute clarity to consumers and underpin their confidence in the Scottish red meat industry. While responsibility for food labelling in Scotland lies with the FSA, which advises Scottish ministers on food standards issues, the situation is different in England.

In 2010, the UK government transferred food labelling policy from FSA to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and it is under the control of Westminster ministers. But one element that remains the same in Scotland, England or indeed anywhere in Europe, is that the responsibility for this issue lies with those who sell food. I have made clear that my expectation of food businesses is that they do whatever testing is necessary to provide assurances to consumers that their products are what they say they are.

People are now taking much more of an interest in where the food on their plates comes from – supermarkets must do the same when it comes to what they have on their shelves. It’s their job to know.

I have also spoken to major retailers and have urged them 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 boardroom meetings to discuss their sourcing and purchasing policies.

From my conversations with them, that doesn’t seem to have been happening. Yes, they are carrying out the testing – which is, of course, the priority – but they need to consider how to shorten their supply chains as well and source more of their product locally. They, and every other company that sources or supplies food, have an important job to do in restoring consumer confidence. They should not be complacent.

And we must do all we can to promote and protect our world-renowned Scottish brands – beef, sheep and pork. Fortunately, in Scotland, we do not have the complex webs of supply trains that stretch across many European countries. We have short supply chains and farmers with traceability systems for their meat through the Scotch label. For this reason, many customers are realising that they can trust local sources and the Scotch label when buying meat. We now need to explore extending these assurance schemes to the processing sectors.

We are already hearing anecdotal reports suggesting an uplift at many local butchers of around 20-25 per cent. And to strengthen the Scotch label and boost consumer confidence further, we are funding a £1 million campaign to develop new markets and support marketing of the Scotch brands.

It is important that, in 
the current climate, when people are looking very carefully at the provenance of their food, that we continue to build our good reputation both at home and overseas and continue to capitalise on new market opportunities.

The horsemeat issue has raised many questions. There is an absolute need for every step of the food chain to know what their food contains and where it has come from.