LONDON: Europe’s Health and Consumer policy chief rejected claims that EU policy was to blame for the horsemeat scandal. Commissioner Tonio Borg, speaking ahead of talks in Brussels involving the UK and at least six other member states directly affected by the discovery of horse in processed meat, said 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 and the current controversy was — so far at least — not a health issue but one of wrongly labelled products.
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 the UK, France, Romania, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. There would also be a special meeting today of the EU’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain.
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.”
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.”
Borg said: “This is no failure of the internal market. This is an incident inside the internal market which has to be taken very seriously in order to restore the confidence of consumers in what they eat.”
But although there was no reason to think that current EU alert and tracing systems were not working, “they can always be improved or intensified,” the Commissioner said.
UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and his concerned counterparts will have talks chaired by Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney, but no firm conclusions are expected.
“We will be exchanging views, keeping up to date with developments and seeing what ideas to put on the table for a full meeting of agriculture ministers at a scheduled meeting on Monday February 25,” said one EU official.
Borg will be there too, to mull over extending existing labelling rules covering fresh meat to processed meat — something the Commission is considering and for which it has requested an “impact assessment.”
But Borg insisted that would not have resolved the current scandal over horse meat, saying: “This issue was not about labelling of country of origin. This arose because something was labelled as something it was not.
“This was about deceptive labelling: the consumer was consuming a healthy product, but not the one he thought. The (labelling) rules were broken and whether we should now extend labelling about the place of origin (of ingredients) also to processed food is what we are studying.”
Eurogroup for Animals said there were concerns not just about consumer safety but also animal welfare because of a lack of transparency about where the animals used in some foods were raised, transported and slaughtered.
Christine Murray: Testing firms make fortunes
LONDON: Companies that specialise in testing food ingredients stand to gain from increased scrutiny of meat products in the wake of the horsemeat scandal that has spread across Europe since the beginning of the year. French-listed Eurofins, the largest food testing specialist in Europe, and British firm Intertek both said they had already seen a pick-up in demand.
Customers that routinely send samples to check on the type of meat in products don’t seem to be affected, said Bert Popping, director of scientific development at Eurofins. “But we’re seeing more samples coming now from companies that have not previously tested those parameters.”
Eurofins did the tests which helped to confirm the presence of horse in Irish-produced burgers that sparked the scandal. The discovery of horsemeat in imported beef products in Britain, blamed by government ministers on “an international criminal conspiracy,” has prompted investigations into products and suppliers and calls for tighter regulation.
British Environment Secretary Owen Paterson held meetings with the British Institute of Grocery Distributors to discuss standards for the regular testing of meat products by retailers and what will happen in future. Any new regulation or tougher enforcement of existing European rules would be a boon to the highly-specialised food testing sector.
“Within the support services group as a whole, regulation is what they thrive on ... it’s what drives the whole industry,” Robin Speakman, an analyst from Shore Capital, said.
British retailers have already been told by regulators to conduct more authenticity tests on beef products, such as beefburgers, meatballs and lasagne, by Friday. As a result, Intertek has seen more business at its food labouratory in Stoke-on-Trent.
“The current demand we are seeing is focused around identification of the cause and scale of the current issue,” Chetan Parmar, Intertek vice president of food services, said. Food testing currently accounts for less than 5 per cent of business services group Intertek’s global revenue. In 2011, the company spent 7.3 million pounds on two food testing businesses in the UK and Chile, and opened a new labouratory in Turkey.
Will Kirkness, an analyst from Jefferies, said that the scandal could lead to a single-digit upgrade in earnings per share for Eurofins, which focuses exclusively on food testing and has an extensive network of labs and offers the greatest range of tests.
Kirkness said it would probably not move the dial for the three largest European firms SGS, Bureau Veritas and Intertek, which offer food testing along with other services. But he said it was positive for industry sentiment.
Shares in each of the four companies have risen by more than 5 per cent since January 15 when British retailer Tesco withdrew the first batch of beef burgers from its stores.
Eurofins’ Popping said that although he believed current food labelling regulation was adequate, better enforcement and increased awareness on the part of the companies that source products would drive new business for the company.
John Hall: High Spirits
It seems an entrepreneurial spirit is up and trotting in the midst of the horsemeat scandal. In a move the Huffington Post compared to Derek Del Boy Trotter in the TV show Only Fools and Horses, one eBay user is attempting to sell a Findus beef lasagne for £70 on the auction website.
The poster offers standard delivery on the frozen, “limited edition” ready meal, which supermarkets withdrew from sale last week after it was revealed they contain up to 100% horsemeat. The also encourage users to purchase quickly saying: “this item may get booted off eBay so you need to act fast.”
Other eBay users are reportedly advertising “horse meat lasagnas” for Buy It Now prices of around £100, while three bids have already been made on an unreserved Tesco Value spaghetti bolognese ready meal.
One Tesco ready meal posting came with the words “MAY CONTAIN HORSE MEAT” written in huge red letters at the top of the page.
The frozen foods are all beef-based ready meals that have recently been withdrawn from sale after analysis revealed they contained traces of horsemeat.
Call for DNA testingMinisters from Britain and Ireland called for DNA checks on processed foods as part of a rapid EU response to the horsemeat scandal widening across Europe. “We need a solution fast,” said Britain’s Owen Paterson, London’s food and environment minister, on arriving in Brussels for crisis talks on the food scandal.
“We’ve got to think of the consumer, the consumer is being defrauded.” He said London favoured the introduction of DNA testing of frozen foods as well as a possible extension to processed foods containing meats of country-of-origin tags currently used only for fresh meat.
Ireland’s farming minister Simon Coveney too called for DNA tests and said he expected a proposal on the issue at the close of talks later on Wednesday between ministers and officials from eight countries affected by the scandal and the EU’s health commissioner Tonio Borg.
“We have the technology now to test food,” Coveney said. “We need to test to ensure food is what it says it is. I think that will involve DNA testing across Europe.” The Irish minister, who will chair the talks as his country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the bloc needed to respond quickly and collectively to food safety fears.