Horsemeat scandal: MPs criticise 'slow investigations'

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Media captionAnne McIntosh: "Speed is of the essence because these criminals are not going to help themselves be discovered"

MPs have said they are "dismayed" at the slow pace of investigations into the horsemeat scandal, six months after the first mislabelling cases emerged.

An Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report said mislabelling horsemeat as beef in the UK and Ireland had been "highly organised".

Committee chair Anne McIntosh blamed "a network of criminality beyond belief".

But the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) said police were still investigating.

Horse DNA was first found in processed beef products by Irish food inspectors in January, and the MPs' committee criticised both British and Irish authorities for failing to "acknowledge the extent of this".

'Fraudulent and illegal'

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Miss McIntosh said: "I think it's just shocking that we still don't know at what point the contamination entered the food chain, and we don't want it to look as though the perpetrators have got away with it."

It was "staggering", she said, that the authorities had not yet gathered sufficient evidence to bring prosecutions.

In its report into food contamination, the committee said: "We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity."

It added: "The evidence we received from retailers and food processors in the UK and Ireland suggests a complex, highly organised network of companies trading in and mislabelling frozen and processed meat or meat products in a way that fails to meet specifications, and that is fraudulent and illegal."

A number of beef products, including frozen lasagne, were withdrawn from sale in the UK and Europe at the height of the scandal, after they were found to have traces of horsemeat in them.

Authorities carried out several raids across the UK and three men were arrested under the Fraud Act, but no prosecutions have so far been brought.

The MPs acknowledged that "contamination was limited to a relatively small number" of products with 99% of processed and frozen beef products tested in the UK found not to contain any horsemeat.

Across the EU as a whole, 4.66% of products tested were found to contain at least 1% horsemeat.

But the report expressed "surprise" that 14 out of 836 horse carcasses tested positive for the painkiller bute - the highest number of positive tests in the EU.

Since February, all horse carcasses have been tested before leaving slaughterhouses and if they were found to contain bute, they were disposed of and did not enter the food chain.

'Regular but random'

The committee complained that there had been a "lack of clarity" within Whitehall over where responsibility lay for dealing with such issues.

It also said there were clearly "many loopholes" in the current system of horse passports, and called for assurances that horse movements within the UK and between the UK and Ireland were being properly monitored.

The report said the Food Standards Agency "hesitated" after horse DNA had been found, causing confusion for the public and retailers.

The MPs blamed changes made in 2010, which took some responsibility for food monitoring and labelling from the authority.

Those duties went to the Defra but the committee's report said that split caused problems when the horsemeat scandal emerged and should be reversed.

It said the FSA's testing regime was not "sufficiently innovative or forward-looking" and recommended that it "must become a more efficient and effective regulator of industry".

In June the FSA announced the results of its own review of the crisis, calling for a strengthening of its major incident plan.

But Miss McIntosh also called on major retailers to agree with the FSA a new system of spot checks on food.

"There should be regular but random DNA testing" to be carried out by the major supermarkets, she said. "They could start doing it tomorrow."

Local authorities should also increase their food-inspection activities, she argued, adding that the committee was "particularly concerned at the small, declining number of food analysts" working for councils.

Addressing the issue of criminal prosecutions, a Defra spokeswoman said: "The police are investigating how products containing horsemeat came to be on sale in the UK and they will take action where any unlawful activity has taken place."

She added: "It is absolutely wrong for any businesses to con the public by allowing horsemeat to be labelled 'beef'.

"That's why we have set up an independent review to identify any weaknesses in the food supply chain or the regulatory system to prevent this happening again."

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