Horsemeat scandal: UK welcomes EU-wide horsemeat tests

Owen Paterson said DNA testing will reassure consumers that the food they buy has been properly labelled

The environment secretary has welcomed plans for EU-wide, random DNA tests to tackle the widening horsemeat scandal.

The move to test processed beef for horsemeat was made at an EU crisis meeting in Brussels.

Owen Paterson said he was "pleased" with the plans, adding it was "wrong" consumers had bought beef products that contained horse.

Horsemeat should also be tested for the drug phenylbutazone, the European Commission said.

Under the plans, testing by the food standards authorities of each member state would begin on 1 March, and continue for three months. However, members should report back after 30 days, the commission said.

The proposals from the meeting - which involved the Irish Republic, France, Romania, Luxembourg, Sweden and Poland - will be put to an emergency meeting of the EU's Standing Committee on the Food Chain and is expected to be endorsed.

"That is why I am leaving for the Hague very shortly - to get to the bottom of an international criminal conspiracy," Mr Paterson told reporters, as he left the meeting.

Mr Paterson had pressed at the meeting for improved DNA testing of processed meat across the EU in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, which began last month.

'Sense of urgency'

Simon Coveney, Irish Minister for Agriculture, said after the meeting the issue was of "labelling fraud".

"We have more than enough law and regulations to deal with that fraud when we establish who is responsible for it. But I think consumers will want to see us also prioritising the labelling of processed food," he told a press conference.

He described the meeting as "proactive" and said there was a "sense of urgency" among ministers that they want something "significant done on this quickly".

Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron promised that those who had passed off horsemeat as beef would be dealt with.

"We've agreed a tougher inspection regime, we've asked hospitals and schools and prisons to check with their suppliers that they are testing their products... if there has been criminal activity then there should be the full intervention of the law," he told MPs during Prime Minister's Questions.

Safety issues

  • Experts say horsemeat is as safe to eat as beef
  • The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has ordered food businesses to check for horsemeat in all processed beef products, such as burgers, meatballs and lasagne. The first set of results are expected on Friday
  • There is concern that some horses are given a drug called bute (phenylbutazone) which can be dangerous to humans
  • In rare cases it causes a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia, where the body does not make enough new blood cells
  • Animals treated with phenylbutazone are not allowed to enter the food chain for this reason
  • The Food Standards Agency has ordered Findus to test its beef lasagne that contains horsemeat for bute
  • Results are expected imminently

He said there was no evidence products on the shelves of British shops were unsafe to eat.

Meanwhile, Victor Ponta, prime minister of Romania, where two abattoirs are alleged to have sold horsemeat purported to be beef to European food companies, said the scandal was a continent-wide problem.

He told Newsnight : "It's a European crisis because it affects the absolute right of European customers to trust the food, to trust products and know exactly what kind of food it is and where it comes from."

Referring to the allegations, he added: "We have checked all data we had up to now regarding the plants and the way the meat has been processed, and up to now haven't found any irregularities."

The horsemeat scandal began in January when Irish authorities discovered horsemeat in some burgers stocked by a number of UK supermarket chains.

Horsemeat has also been found in branded and supermarket-own ready meals, including lasagne and spaghetti bolognese. Some Findus frozen beef in lasagne, made by a French food processing company, was found to be up to 100% horsemeat.

The FSA has stressed that horsemeat does not pose a health risk to the public, however there have been concerns that if unregulated horsemeat is substituted for beef it could expose people to phenylbutazone (bute), which is not allowed in the UK food chain.

The FSA has ordered food businesses to carry out tests on all processed beef products and the first results are expected on Friday.

On Tuesday night, raids were carried out on two UK meat firms. The FSA suspended operations at both raided premises and seized paperwork.

The raided premises were Peter Boddy Licensed Slaughterhouse, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, and Farmbox Meats Ltd, of Llandre near Aberystwyth.

Mr Boddy said he was co-operating with the FSA and officials were "welcome to visit" his premises whenever they wanted.

Dafydd Raw Rees, of Farmbox Meats, said the firm was licensed to deal with horses and it had been cutting horsemeat from the Republic of Ireland, for export to Belgium, for the last three weeks.

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