The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has told the industry to test beef products and report the results by next Friday.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson called retailers and the FSA to a meeting today to discuss the situation, which escalated dramatically with the revelation some Findus ready-meal lasagne contained up to 100 per cent horse meat.
The Aldi supermarket chain last night withdrew its bolognese and lasagne from sale as a precautionary measure after it emerged the meat had come from the same source as the Findus product.
Prime Minister David Cameron described the scandal as a “shocking story” and “completely unacceptable”.
Amid mounting concerns that criminal activity has been to blame for horsemeat being found in beefburgers and ready meals, Mr Paterson said police had held talks with the FSA to discuss how to deal with the crisis.
Today’s summit will discuss the testing programme imposed by the FSA, under which the food industry will take beef samples at the raw-material stage to ensure it is not horse meat.
Mr Paterson, who has come under fire for being too low-profile during the scandal and been branded a “silent” secretary of state, announced the summit and inspection plans in a bid to restore public confidence in the food supply chain.
He said: “I talked with them [the FSA] again today and I will be having meetings with them tomorrow, and retailers, because we have decided together to launch this unprecedented analysis of processed beef products right across the retail chain. We hope to have the results by next Friday.”
Mr Paterson revealed police were looking at the scandal, but Scotland Yard stressed its involvement did yet not amount to an official investigation.
The Environment Secretary said the scandal could be down to “incompetence” but he added that he had “a nasty feeling that it is a criminal conspiracy. And that’s why it is quite right for the FSA to engage the Metropolitan Police, who are working with other police forces across mainland Europe”.
Mr Paterson’s statement had uncomfortable reminders of the 1990 BSE scandal, during which the then Conservative minister John Gummer fed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger to prove it was safe.
In one breath, Mr Paterson advised consumers to take back Findus lasagne to retailers, but in the next said he would be quite happy to eat it himself.
“If people have that particular product, they should take it back to the retailer,” he said. “Personally, I would [eat it], because what we have in these cases, and the FSA has been quite clear, these are shocking cases of mislabelling, but there is no material that has so far been divulged which poses any threat to human health.”
He added: “It is absolutely wrong that the public should buy a product marked processed beef when it actually contains processed horse – but it doesn’t actually pose any health threat. As we know, there are countries where a significant amount of horse are consumed.”
Mr Paterson said the nationwide tests over the next few days would detect whether or not the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, or “bute”, was present in the horsemeat. Bute is a treatment for arthritis, which is still used for horses, but its use was discontinued for humans when it was discovered a rare blood disease could be a side-effect.
Professor Hugh Pennington, one of Scotland’s leading public health experts, told The Scotsman he thought the risk from the drug was small.
“There is this concern about phenylbutazone,” he said. “But I am sure that, if it was there, it would be in very small amounts. It is not so much a major health risk as a trading standards issue. People have been buying something which was not what they read on the label.”
But Prof Pennington did say he feared the horsemeat that had gone on sale would be poor quality.
“I agree with the FSA that there has been some sort of criminal activity going on,” he said. “Someone is selling cheap horsemeat as beef to make some money. It is unlikely to be the sort of high-quality horsemeat that is eaten on the continent. It is more likely to be horse that is going to the knacker’s yard to be used as dog food.”
Findus has apologised over its horsemeat ready meals, saying it was “sorry to have let people down”. The offending meals, supplied by the Comigel company, based in Metz in north-east France, have been removed from shop shelves.
But there were more damaging allegations made against Findus, when an MP claimed its beef lasagne might have been contaminated since last summer.
Labour’s Tom Watson said he had obtained a letter from the company to retailers, warning that a French-based supplier had told it on last Saturday that raw materials delivered to it since 1 August last year were “likely to be non-conform and consequently the labelling on finished products is incorrect”.
The letter, which Mr Watson said had been sent to retailers on Monday, added: “The supplier has asked us to withdraw the raw material batches.”
Findus was asked to respond to the claim but had not done so last night.
A company spokesman said its priority was providing quality products customers can trust.
“But we know that many people have been concerned by the news this week that tests have shown that some of our Findus beef lasagne has been found to contain horse meat,” he said. “We understand those concerns. We are sorry that we have let people down.”
The spokesman added that Findus “do not believe this is a food safety issue” but that anyone who had bought 320g, 360g or 500g Findus beef lasagne packs could call its customer care line on 0800 132584 for advice and a refund.
The frozen food firm, which has its headquarters in London, tested 18 of its beef lasagne products, made by Comigel, and found 11 contained between 60 per cent and 100 per cent horse meat, the FSA said.
A spokesman for Tesco, which, like Aldi and Findus, had sourced some meat from Comigel, said it was testing one of its spaghetti bolognese lines.
He said: “We are aware of the results of the Findus tests and we will of course assist Findus with their recall process. Tests on our frozen Everyday Value spaghetti bolognese product are ongoing under our new DNA testing programme. We will inform our customers of the results as soon as possible.”
An Aldi spokesman said: “Tests have been completed that show horsemeat in the withdrawn products. In samples selected at random, tests demonstrated that the withdrawn products contained between 30 per cent and 100 per cent horsemeat. This is completely unacceptable and, like other affected companies, we feel angry and let down by our supplier.
“If the label says beef, our customers expect it to be beef. Suppliers are absolutely clear that they are required to meet our stringent specifications and that we do not tolerate any failure to do so. We have acted quickly to withdraw the affected products from sale, conduct additional testing and review the performance of our suppliers.
“The products from Comigel will not be sold in our stores again and we will no longer take any product from Comigel.”
• 16 JANUARY Authorities in Ireland say beef burgers with traces of equine DNA, including one product classed as 29 per cent horse, are being supplied to supermarkets by Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire. Ten million suspect burgers are taken off the shelves by retailers including Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores.
• 17 JANUARY The ABP Food Group suspends work at Silvercrest Foods plant in Co Monaghan, Ireland.
• 23 JANUARY Burger King, which is supplied by ABP Food Group, switches to another supplier as a precautionary measure.
• 30 JANUARY Irish authorities believe “filler product” made from horse meat and beef found in contaminated burgers came from Poland.
• 4 FEBRUARY Production suspended at Rangeland Foods in Co Monaghan as 75 per cent equine DNA is found in raw ingredients.
• 5 February Frozen meat at Freeza Meats company in Newry, Northern Ireland, is found to contain 80 per cent horse meat. It is potentially linked to the Silvercrest factory in the Ireland. Asda withdraws Freeza Meats products.
• 6 February Tesco and Aldi remove frozen spaghetti and lasagne meals produced by French supplier Comigel, after concerns about its Findus beef lasagne.
• 7 February The FSA reveals some Findus UK beef lasagnes, made by Comigel, were found to contain up to 100 per cent horse meat. Tesco and Aldi remove ready meals produced by Comigel.
2,000 staff, a £135m budget and a remit to ensure the safety of what we eat and drink
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is an independent government body responsible for food safety and hygiene throughout the UK.
It was proposed in 1997, amid concerns about food poisoning, intensive farming methods and BSE, and finally was set up in 2001.
One of the main incidents that led to its formation was the outbreak of E coli 0157 food poisoning in Lanarkshire in 1996, which killed 21 people after they ate contaminated meat.
A sheriff’s report into the E coli outbreak, considered the worst ever recorded, said a Wishaw shopkeeper had been ignorant of food hygiene procedures and deceived food inspectors, while the environmental health service was criticised for acting too slowly in linking the outbreak to the shop.
With a staff of more than 2,000 and an annual budget of £135 million, the FSA’s statutory objective is to protect public health and consumers in relation to food and drink.
Previously, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had been responsible for food safety, but it was felt that it was inappropriate for it to retain that responsibility, along with its remit for the farming and food-processing industries.
The body has been credited with raising awareness of good eating habits and persuading food manufacturers to reduce their use of salt.
The agency has also made high-profile product recalls over the past decade.
In 2005, it announced the discovery of the allegedly carcinogenic dye Sudan I in Worcester sauce, prompting a mass recall of more than 400 products that used the sauce as a flavouring.
In 2006, it published its “Survey of benzene levels in soft drinks”, which tested 150 products and found four contained benzene levels above World Health Organisation guidelines for drinking water. The agency asked for these to be removed from sale.
The FSA has also demanded far stricter rules governing advertising to children of foods high in salt, fat or sugar.