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Written Statement - Update on Contamination of Meat Products

Alun Davies, Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and European Programmes
On Tuesday 19th February I made an oral statement and answered questions on the issues surrounding recent incidents of meat contamination in the food supply chain. 

There have been some further developments since that time in respect of the investigation into the contamination of meat products and the implications for Wales.

Following the discovery of equine DNA in meat products, the FSA asked all Welsh local authorities to undertake enhanced enforcement activity at food manufacturers within their local authority area that they considered to be high risk.  Nine samples were taken by Powys County Council from the Burger Manufacturing Company (BMC) in Llanelwedd on the 8th February. Initial screening results for at least 1% horse DNA were reported late on 18th February and others early on 19th February by the public analyst to Powys CC, who forwarded the information to the FSA. A separate line of enquiry by FSA investigators led to the investigation at Farmbox in Llandre which commenced on 12th February, following which BMC declared itself as a customer of Farmbox and Powys CC took further samples of meat products. We have not yet received the results of these further tests. BMC confirmed publicly on 21st February that the company had initiated a product withdrawal following the initial positive test results.

It was confirmed on 22nd February that the three positive samples contained equine DNA at levels equivalent to 1-2% of the meat content of the products. 

Customers of BMC include a company called “Holdsworth” who in turn supply other establishments, including seven local authorities in Wales. I understand that BMC made an initial supplier contact with Holdsworth regarding the matter on the 19th February. Holdsworth, in turn, contacted its own customers.  The batches of potentially-contaminated products have been removed from the food chain and further traceability checks are ongoing. It is clear that a number of questions remain unanswered and that this in itself may serve to cause further public concern over the coming weeks. I am continuing to work closely with officials and with the FSA to understand the nature and extent of the problem, and to propose solutions when we are able to fully appreciate the range of issues involved. It is also clear that the further test results will not be ready immediately and may not be available for at least another week.

As a part of the wider industry testing regime demanded by the FSA, it was announced on Friday that Sodexo, had also withdrawn a number of their meat products. Sodexo has a number of clients in the healthcare, education and public sectors across the UK. The FSA is working with Sodexo to understand their customer base and to trace products to ensure food safety and minimise the impact of recent contamination incidents. I trust that Sodexo will cooperate fully in this investigation as we need all those in the supply chain to act with integrity and to be transparent about their operations. I am awaiting a full briefing from the FSA on any potential implications for Wales.

During my oral statement on 19th February I repeatedly emphasised that this is primarily a matter of negligence and potential criminality, rather than a direct threat to human health. Whilst this remains the case, it is becoming increasingly clear that public concern over the integrity of the food chain and the potential for corruption of food products is growing, with consumers regarding the current problems as potentially indicative of wider failures in food standards controls.  It is important for government to demonstrate that we are proactive in ensuring that the food chain is safe and that food in schools and hospitals in particular is beyond question.

I am assured that local authorities have a firm policy of withdrawing any product where there is any suggested lack of integrity in the supply chain.  Welsh Government officials have contacted the WLGA and I am advised that sixteen south and Mid Wales authorities use the “Wales Purchasing Consortium” when purchasing a wide range of food supplies. They have already approached their suppliers to demand rigorous checking of supplies in order to ensure integrity of products being purchased and a withdrawal of specific products will take place if necessary.  

The removal of particular products is a necessary precautionary step in order to maintain public confidence in the food supply chain. There is no known threat to the health or well-being of any children in any of the seven local authority areas where products have been withdrawn.

Public institutions are within the scope of the UK-wide authenticity sampling programme being organised by the FSA, and suppliers (such as caterers) of meat products to schools and hospitals are included within that surveillance effort. 

In recent weeks I have joined ministerial colleagues from the other UK administrations in meetings with retailers, processors and other parts of the meat industry to press the industry to take action to reassure their customers and the general public. I have supported the FSA in insisting that further testing throughout the industry continues and that all results are released to the public. Yesterday I attended EU Agriculture Council where the European response was discussed.  Along with other UK Ministers I pressed for the European Commission to take further action to test all at-risk products and to continue testing over the next three months.  We also called on the Commission to provide details of cross-border movements of horses and horsemeat, including imports from third countries.  

In a long and wide-ranging discussion in Council of the key issues there was strong endorsement of the need for an EU-wide approach, including the co-ordination efforts of Europol in relation to criminal investigations.  Member States undertook to share their enforcement intelligence in support of this work.  There was also consideration of the potential merits of country of origin labelling for processed products, even though this would not in itself have prevented the fraudulent activity suspected in the recent contamination incidents.  The European Commission is undertaking a thorough impact assessment of origin labelling, and a report will come forward to Council later this year.

I will continue to provide updates to the Assembly on these issues.