Last updated: February 8, 2013 12:57 pm

Horsemeat probe widens after new scare

Findus beef lasagne©AP

The government came under fire on Friday for not responding swiftly enough to the horsemeat scandal, as food companies were given one week to examine their products after more meat was found to be wrongly labelled.

Manufacturers and retailers have been ordered to test all their beef products after it was discovered that the meat in Findus beef lasagne may have been 100 per cent horsemeat – the biggest proportion found so far.

The Food Standards Agency is also trying to uncover the scale of the crisis by conducting its own tests of meat products in supermarkets and canteens.

The government was accused of being “asleep on the job” by Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary.

Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, has yet to appear in the media to reassure the public after the Findus scare, and this week left it to David Heath, a junior minister, to chair a meeting with industry representatives to discuss contaminated supply chains.

The prime minister’s spokesperson insisted on Friday that the environment secretary had not been slow to respond.

Number 10 was also unable to rule out whether burgers and lasagnes containing horsemeat had been served to children and patients in Britain’s schools and hospitals. It could also not say whether other processed pork or lamb products might also be contaminated.

But the government tried to allay the public’s concerns, pointing out that the FSA had not found any health risks in the contamination of beef products.

“It is legal to slaughter and sell horsemeat in the UK if the proper hygiene rules are followed. No one is taking away from the fact these particular cases are distasteful because people thought it was beef,” said the prime minister’s spokesperson.

But Ms Creagh said there had been “absolutely no advice” from ministers on what people who may have these products in their fridges and freezers should do.

She also questioned why the FSA had not started its more rigorous testing regime when the crisis first emerged last month. She said it was “no longer just a food safety issue but possibly a criminal trade”, and called for police and fraud experts to investigate it.

Andrew Rhodes, director of operations for the FSA, stressed it was food companies’ responsibility to comply with the law. “It is the responsibility of those making the food or selling the food that it is exactly what it says on the label,” Mr Rhodes told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning.

Anne McIntosh, chair of the environment department select committee, said the investigations should be expanded overseas to ensure imported meat was tested before it reaches British shores.

“The common strand in all of this is that it is imported meat from EU countries,” she told the Today programme. “This is sending shockwaves through the farming community, denting consumer confidence and restoring the message that we need to buy local.”

Findus, owned by Lion Capital, the private equity firm, withdrew the lasagne products after Comigel, its French supplier, raised concerns about the type of meat used. It said it did not believe this was a food safety issue.

However, the FSA has ordered Findus to test the lasagne for the veterinary drug phenylbutazone. Animals treated with this drug are not allowed to enter the food chain as it may pose a risk to human health.

“Findus UK can confirm that testing of its beef lasagne, produced by a third-party supplier and not by Findus, has revealed some product containing horsemeat,” the company said.

“As a precautionary measure, on Monday we co-ordinated a full withdrawal of our affected beef lasagne in the following sizes – 320g, 360g and 500g – from all retailers. All other Findus products have been tested and are not affected.”

The emergence of mislabelled meats – which has also seen pork in beef products, including those served to Muslim prisoners – comes as the food chain has grown longer and more complex, and as manufacturers are under pressure to make ever cheaper products for cash-strapped consumers.

Concerns have been raised that this is encouraging suppliers further down the chain to bulk out meat with horsemeat, as it is about one-sixth the price of beef.

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