Horse meat: 'prosecutions possible'
Criminal prosecutions could follow an investigation into the horse meat contamination of burgers sold by some supermarkets, the Government has said.
But environment minister David Heath said standards were generally very high in the British food industry and backed the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) risk-based checking system.
Answering an urgent question from Labour's shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh in the Commons, Mr Heath acknowledged the seriousness of the discovery.
He said: "It is very important neither you, nor anyone else in this House, talks down the British food industry at a time when the standards in that industry are of a very high level. Because something has been discovered in Ireland, which is serious, which may lead to criminal proceedings, does not undermine the very serious efforts which are taken by retailers, by processors and by producers in this country to ensure traceability and ensure standards of food that are available to consumers."
Supermarket giant Tesco has placed full-page adverts in a number of national newspapers apologising to customers for selling beef burgers containing horse meat. The apology came as a reported £300 million was wiped off Tesco's stock market value.
Aldi, Lidl and Iceland have also withdrawn frozen beefburgers from their shelves after they were found to be contaminated with horse meat. Sainsbury's, Asda and the Co-op later withdrew some frozen products but stressed that the move was "purely precautionary" and they had not been found to be selling contaminated food.
Tesco promised refunds to customers who had bought the contaminated products, which it identified as Tesco Everyday Value 8 x Frozen Beef Burgers (397g), Tesco 4 x Frozen Beef Quarter Pounders (454g), and a branded product, Flamehouse Frozen Chargrilled Quarter Pounders. In the advertisement, entitled "We apologise", Tesco says: "While the FSAI (Food Safety Authority of Ireland) has said that the products pose no risk to public health, we appreciate that, like us, our customers will find this absolutely unacceptable. We have immediately withdrawn from sale all products from the supplier in question, from all our stores and online... We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise."
Tesco's apology came as a food expert claimed horse meat could have been in beef burgers for years, but remained undetected because of insufficient food regulation. The FSA said it would consider taking legal action against companies at the centre of the scandal. But the organisation was criticised for not carrying out tests in the past because horse meat posed no threat to public health, the Daily Telegraph said. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University in London, told the newspaper: "It could have been going on for years, but we wouldn't know about it because we have never conducted tests. For too long we have had light-touch regulation. The Food Standards Agency has to be institutionalised into taking a more critical approach. They have to work on the assumption that things could go wrong."
Meanwhile, the food company at the centre of the scandal vowed to adopt strict DNA testing of its products to prevent a repeat. The ABP Food Group, one of Europe's biggest suppliers and processors, is being investigated by health and agriculture authorities in the UK and Ireland over the controversy. Two of its subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, supplied beef burgers with traces of equine DNA to supermarkets, including one product classed as 29% horse. An ABP spokesman said: "It is vital that the integrity of the supply chain is assured and we are committed to restoring consumer confidence."
The millions of burgers suspected of containing some levels of horse DNA are off shelves and currently held either in frozen storage or being returned to processors. ABP, which is awaiting results of secondary testing ordered by the Department of Agriculture in Ireland due this evening, said it wants the food binned. "We have recommended that the withdrawn product is destroyed," the company said. "We do not have monetary figures for the product we have recommended be withdrawn, but can confirm it would total around 10 million burgers."