EU proposes meat testing plan
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, Britain's Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and European Health and Commissioner Tonio Borg attend the meeting to discuss the horsemeat contriversy. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
The European Commission is to introduce a coordinated two-pronged meat control and testing plan across member states to tackle the horsemeat crisis, EU health commissioner Tonio Borg said tonight.
The month-long plan will recommend that countries carry out controls at market level of products to identify misleading labelling practices in beef products. It will also ask member states to control for the detection of the drug phenylbutazone in raw horse-meat, he said in a statement. Results are to be reported back to the Commission, he said.
He reiterated his belief that there was currently no evidence to suggest the “scandal poses a threat to public health”.
"We are treating it as a case of fraudulent misuse of the labelling system for economic gain and Europol will coordinate the different criminal investigations going on," he said tonight.
The statement came after a meeting of concerned EU agriculture ministers in Brussels tonight, which was convened by Ireland yesterday.
"This coordinated control plan will have to be done by all member states but in proportion to the size of their domestic market, so as to restore the confidence of all European consumers," Mr Borg said in a statement.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney tonight welcomed Mr Borg’s proposal which see testing carried out between March 1st and 31st.
“Overall some 2,500 samples of processed beef products will be taken across the EU and some 4,000 samples taken at slaughterhouses for phenythbutazone,” Mr Coveney said in a statement.
“These 4,000 samples will compromise of 2500 samples of EU horsemeat and 1500 samples from non-EU horsemeat,” he added.
The findings will be published on April 15th , he said.
“Ireland will continue to give leadership in this area and will work with our EU partners to ensure new consumer assurance measures, including increased testing and more accurate labelling, are introduced," he said.
Earlier today Mr Coveney called for the fast-tracking of proposed European legislation on the labelling of processed food,.
Mr Coveney stressed the important of a collective European response to the horse meat crisis. He called for an "open and blunt conversation about how best we can collectively respond to this."
The issue, which had first been highlighted in Ireland, was now a European problem, he said.
"Now that we know this is a European problem, we need a European solution," he said, adding that he was satisfied with the European Commission's response.
Mr Coveney said that so far there was no threat to public health. "As of now no tests suggest there is health risks to what happened. This is a fraud issue, it is a labelling issue. If as a result of the test that changes we'll obviously have to respond to that appropriately." he said.
He said the mislabelling of food was a question of fraud. "There are already regulations in place that should have ensured that this didn't happen. Clearly someone has been breaching the rules," he said.
Mr Borg earlier announced that a special meeting of the EU's Standing Committee on the Food Chain has been arranged for Friday.
He rejected claims that EU policy was to blame for the horse meat scandal.and said the system as “one of the safest in the world” and that the issue was one of labelling.
Speaking in Brussels this lunchtime, the commissioner said: “Thanks to this system and its capacity for full traceability, national authorities are in a position to investigate this matter so as to find the source of the problem.”
The comments were his first public statement on the issue since the scandal broke last month. The European Commission has consistently argued that the question was a labelling rather than a health issue.
Mr Borg added there were EU rules in force on labelling and a "rapid alert" system to identify rogue goods and remove them from shelves across Europe if necessary. But enforcement of the rules was up to national authorities.
He said the Commission was first formally notified about the problem last Friday by one member state - the UK - and was now working with authorities in Ireland, UK, France, Romania, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
He said: “The EU food safety system is one of the safest in the world. Thanks to this system and its capacity for full traceability, national authorities are in a position to investigate this matter so as to find the source of the problem.
“The European rules on traceability have allowed member states to discover rapidly the origin and distribution chain of the fraudulent products.”
Mr Borg said there were currently no signs that the horse meat in the food chain was a health risk.
He said: “If there are signs, we will take immediate action, but it would be unfair and inappropriate for all countries involved to turn this immediately into a health issue without having the evidence.”
Today's meeting comes in the wake of a raid by British police on a Welsh meat plant and a Yorkshire slaughterhouse over claims that horses killed in Britain were used to make low-cost meat dishes.
The raids, a significant escalation in the crisis surrounding food labelling, occurred as MPs in the House of Commons lauded the safety of British meat supplies and urged consumers to “buy British”.
Describing the developments as “absolutely shocking”, environment secretary Owen Paterson said: “It’s totally unacceptable if any business in the UK is defrauding the public by passing off horse meat as beef. I expect the full force of the law to be brought down on . . . this kind of activity.”
Meanwhile, a Polish veterinary delegation was expected to arrive in Ireland last night to be briefed on the Department of Agriculture’s investigation into how horse meat got into Polish beef product supplied to the Silvercrest and Rangeland plants in Co Monaghan.
The beef product that tested positive for horse DNA came via three different routes but all product was labelled as Polish. The Polish authorities have denied that the horse meat came from its country. The veterinary delegation is expected to spend a couple of days here, examining product and accompanying documentation.
The discovery of horse meat in Findus, Aldi and Tesco products last week turned the issue into a Europe-wide scandal. French company Comigel was involved, meat from Romania was blamed and the products were made in Luxembourg.
In the Northern Ireland Assembly politicians were told the problem of horse meat in products was not “on the radar” in the North until the discoveries were made by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
Gerry McCurdy, head of the Northern Ireland Food Standards Agency, said the discoveries had triggered a series of similar checks in the North.
Mr McCurdy told a joint meeting of the Assembly’s agriculture and health committees that 18 European states were now dealing with a probable fraudulent and complex “pan-European” problem of horse meat contamination.
Assembly members were told that meat was being traded across Europe to food processors as a commodity and that the difference in price between horse meat, at £700 a tonne, and beef, at £3,000 a tonne, was a “major” motivation for fraud.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on agriculture Éamon Ó Cuív has called on Mr Coveney to enforce stricter guidelines to curb the illegal horse meat trade in Ireland.
Additional reporting: Reuters