Environment Secretary Owen Paterson called for a Europe-wide overhaul of food testing yesterday in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
The current system relies too heavily on trusting paperwork that comes with meat shipments, Mr Paterson told Sky News’s Murnaghan programme.
He spoke as the chief executive of one supermarket traded criticism with the Local Government Association after accusing councils of helping drive down the quality of food used in public sector contracts.
Mr Paterson said: “The whole problem we have is that the system... which is laid down from above trusts the paperwork,” he said.
“So it trusts that the pallet conforms to the piece of paper. No-one checks what is on the pallet often enough, no-one checks what is in production often enough, no-one checks the finished product often enough.
“We have agreed in this particular issue there will be Europe-wide testing for horse DNA, there will be Europe-wide testing for bute, which is a major advance.
“When this is through I want to have a proper look at the whole system.”
Mr Paterson also said he had asked the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to investigate claims that Ministers were warned in 2011 that horsemeat was illegally entering the human food chain.
John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, now part of the FSA, told The Sunday Times he helped draft a letter to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in April that year.
But he said the letter to former Minister Sir Jim Paice on behalf of Britain’s largest horsemeat exporter, High Peak Meat Exports, which warned that flesh with possible drug residue getting into food could blow up into a scandal, was ignored.
In the letter the firm warned the Government that its passport scheme designed to stop meat containing the drug phenylbutazone, known as bute, getting into the food chain was not working, calling it a “debacle”. “Defra gave nearly 80 organisations the authority to produce passports and some of them are little better than children could produce... It’s a complete mess,” he said.
Sir Jim said he did not remember seeing the warnings, telling The Sunday Times: “If this information was in Defra and was not being acted upon, it warrants further investigation. I would like to know why on earth I was not being told about it.”
The FSA revealed on Friday that 2,501 tests were conducted on beef products, with 29 results positive for undeclared horse meat at or above one per cent.
The 29 results related to seven different products, which have already been reported and withdrawn from sale – Aldi’s special frozen beef lasagne and special frozen spaghetti bolognese, Co-op frozen quarter pounder burgers, Findus beef lasagne, Rangeland’s catering burger products, and Tesco value frozen burgers and value spaghetti bolognese.
Pub and hotel group Whitbread became the latest company to admit horse DNA had been found in its food, saying its meat lasagnes and beefburgers had been affected and removed from menus
Horsemeat was also discovered in school dinners, with cottage pies testing positive for horse DNA sent to 47 Lancashire schools before being withdrawn.
Malcolm Walker, chief executive of frozen food firm Iceland, said yesterday that the blame for contamination lay less with supermarkets and more with the catering industry and local authorities. “British supermarkets have got a fantastic reputation for food safety,” he told the Andrew Marr Show.
“If we’re going to blame somebody, let’s start with local authorities because there’s a whole side to this industry which is invisible.
“That’s the catering industry. Schools, hospitals – it’s massive business for cheap food and local authorities award contracts based purely on one thing: price.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) said Mr Walker was “a little confused”. “The law is 100 per cent clear that it is the responsibility of the manufacturer, supplier and retailer to make sure the product they sell us is what they say it is,” an LGA spokesman said.