Owen Paterson breaks cover after pressure on No 10

BEFORE his TV appearance last night, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had been conspicuous by his absence, leaving public statements to his deputy, the Lib Dem David Heath.

At yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, a No 10 spokeswoman responded to criticism of Mr Paterson for not appearing to deal with the issue by saying David Cameron had “full confidence” in his Cabinet colleague. “He has been working on this issue, he has been working hard on it as we speak, talking to the various bodies involved in it,” she said.

The perception that the government did not have a grip on the controversy was only magnified by the spokeswoman’s failure to spell out whether any tests had been done on school, hospital and prison meals or other state-provided food.

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Pressed repeatedly, she said: “We have a regulatory regime in place and we have bodies that are there to enforce them, and there is clearly a responsibility on retailers as well.

“The FSA are looking at this issue. There are routine tests carried out, but it is really up to retailers to ensure that what they are selling to people who cook food for other people to consume is what it is on the label.”

The impression of a drifting government was pounced on by Labour, with Mr Paterson’s shadow, Mary Creagh, saying: “The public must have confidence that the food they buy is properly labelled, legal and safe whether it is bought from a supermarket or in a school canteen. It is worrying that No 10 cannot rule out horse meat being served in our schools and hospitals.

“This scandal is now in its fourth week, and the incompetent Defra Secretary is nowhere to be found. He should get a grip.”