This week the Stormont Health committee received a briefing from the Food Standards Agency about the Horse Meant Scandal.
Roy took the opportunity to question the officals:-
Mr Beggs: It was touched on earlier that Northern Ireland has a very high level of traceability, perhaps the highest in the world. However, rogue traders and processors, whether in Europe or elsewhere, have put a bit of doubt in some minds at a cost to legitimate businesses. Do you agree that one of the ways of reducing risk factors is to keep the food chain as short as possible and that, to a degree, that means buying from a trusted local butcher?
Ms Jennings: Mr Beggs, we have to look at the whole global food system, and we have to operate with what we have. We have to put checks and controls in place in that system to ensure that food can move around the world in the way that it needs to in order to feed people. To feed Northern Ireland consumers, we need to bring in food from all parts of the world. We work in the European Union to ensure that the border checks are in place for food coming in from third countries, and then there is free movement in the European Union. Those are the systems and controls that are in place, and we work with those controls.
Mr Beggs: Is the highest risk to consumers locally more likely to be imported food, where there is not the degree of traceability that exists with locally produced food? Will you be concentrating your effort on that?
Ms Jennings: A lot of effort is put into controlling imports. The European Union has its own inspectors who go out to third countries to carry out audits of individual processing plants so that those plants are authorised to put food into the European Union and move within the EEC. Those checks are in place, and we work with those. More locally, as I said, vets, meat inspectors and environmental health officers carry out checks daily in our own processing plants and of our retailers and manufacturers. So, there are layers upon layers of controls there that should protect consumers.
Mr Beggs: I have a final question. I understand that, in England, DEFRA had responsibility for the genetic testing of meat, but that was devolved to local councils. I take it that responsibility remains with you, in Northern Ireland. How many such tests were carried out in the past year?
Ms Jennings: When the Food Standards Agency carried out this work across the United Kingdom, we generally carried out UK-wide surveys. In the past, we have looked at salamis, for example, and we have identified horse and donkey meat there; we have looked at different species of fish; and we have looked at rice, the selling of lower quality rice and such things. It is fair to say that, since the responsibility in England moved to DEFRA, there has been a shift in the money and the programme to DEFRA, which means that, when we go to carry out a UK-wide survey now, DEFRA leads on it and we provide top-up funding for that work. For the past couple of years, the focus of the Food Standards Agency has been on food safety issues. We are having those discussions with DEFRA at the moment, and the planned programme will, of course, obviously, shift to this issue.
Mr Beggs: You have not answered my question. Were no tests carried out last year in Northern Ireland?
Ms Jennings: No. There were no tests on speciation carried out in Northern Ireland. Sorry.
Mr Beggs: Do you agree that even some random testing would create a higher level of risk for those trying to dupe the system and to profit at the expense of others?
Ms Jennings: Definitely. This has obviously focused our attention on to that; there is no doubt.
Mr Beggs: With local butchers, you can get full traceability all the way back to the couple of fields in which the animals were reared. In the catering trade, we are also driving up standards with Scores on the Doors. There seems to be a huge gap in between, particularly with factory-processed minced meat, burgers and convenience foods. How does the food processing industry identify the convoluted lines in which there is a higher risk so that the food industry can expend greater effort in identifying and driving out those risks? How will the industry drive out those who are hiding illegal movements of meat or other products in that meat?
Ms Jennings: It is important for all processing establishments to know the source of their meat and what they are buying; we have talked about that extensively with the industry. If it looks like too good a bargain, it probably is. If you are getting meat very cheaply, you have to ask why. There are reasons why brokers are buying this meat on the market and shipping it around Europe. That is a simple answer; I am not sure whether it is enough.
Mr McCurdy: Audits of the processing sector by the major retailers have found that suppliers to the processing chain have been sourcing meat from unapproved businesses that do not meet the specification required by the likes of Tesco or Aldi. The processing sector is particularly problematic when it comes to tracing meat to its source. We accepted that; that is an issue for the industry to resolve.
I go back to my earlier point: it is their responsibility, from the retailer right back through the chain, to satisfy themselves that what they are buying comes from approved sources and that the product is exactly what they are asking for. The industry’s own auditing, testing, verification and validation of what it is getting is extremely important. That has broken down in certain parts, and that needs to be addressed by the industry itself.
Mr Beggs: I heard on the radio that horse meat can cost £20 a ton, whereas beef costs thousands of pounds a ton. Have you been able to assess whether this situation has happened as a result of profiteering by processors who are trying to stay in business and who have been driven to it through financial difficulties? Have they been driven to it by the supermarkets?
Mr McCurdy: I go back to my earlier point about fraudulent activity. I have heard various figures bandied about on how much horse meat costs; someone said £700 a ton, someone else £3,000 a ton. It is obvious that there is a financial incentive for buying horse meat fraudulently, breaking down product in a cold store or a wrapping centre and including horse meat in it. They can turn 50 cases into 60 cases and make a profit. The financial incentive for fraud is definitely there.
Mr Farrell: I share the member’s concern: there is considerable pressure on processors to provide cheap product for retailers.