Horse meat in "beef burgers" would not have been picked up by trading standard officers in the UK because we don't routinely test for it, Channel 4 News has learned.
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Tesco has removed burgers from its shelves after one of its beef burger brands was discovered in Ireland to contain 29 per cent horse meat. However this is not just an Irish problem.
This scandal has highlighted the fact that there is no longer a national system in place for checking whether foods contain what they say the contain following government reorganisation of the Food Standards Agency and local authority budget cuts.
The contamination of more than a third of the beefburger products tested in Ireland was picked up by routine annual sampling in the Republic. Inspectors used DNA tests to look for evidence of beef, horse and pig DNA in a range of processed beef products.
However routine testing of meat in the UK doesn't look for the presence of horse DNA.
"It would be normal to look for the presence of pork in beef products, but not horse," said Irja Howie, a spokesperson for the Trading Standards Institute that represents local authority funded trading standards officers in England and Wales. Environmental health officials in Scotland also confirmed their inspectors don't routinely test for horse meat.
The government needs to come clean about whether the scale of its cuts to trading standards and meat inspections has made this kind of scandal more likely Mary Creagh, Labour Shadow Environment Secretary
In England and Wales the trading standards officers responsible for the testing are employed by local authorities. They inspect food processors following a "risk assessment." Those deemed "at risk" are checked at least once a year. But following local authority cuts the numbers of inspections by trading standards officers is steadily falling.
According to the Unison, the union which represents trading standards officers, between 2010 and 2012 there was a 26 per cent drop in scheduled inspections and a 24 per cent drop in enforcement visits by trading standards officers as a result of budget cuts.
"Trading standards officers work hard to ensure that products pose no risk to consumers but as their budgets are slashed their ability to identify problems, inspect premises and prosecute wrongdoers has become severely limited," said Karen Jennings, assistant general secretary of Unison.
Responsibility for food testing used to be overseen by the Food Standards Agency. But in 2010 responsibilities for food labelling and nutrition were transferred to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs - a time when Defra was also handed a £200m budget cut. The FSA retained its responsibilities for ensuring food is safe, for example testing food for bacteria or chemical contamination.
If Tesco's Value Beefburgers, which were found to have highest horse meat content, had been labelled as containing horse meat they would be perfectly legal and fit for human consumption
Defra passed responsibility for routine "authenticity" testing on to trading standards officers. But because trading standards officers are employed by local authorities there is now no national inspection system for ensuring foods contain what is described on the label.
"The government needs to come clean about whether the scale of its cuts to trading standards and meat inspections has made this kind of scandal more likely," said Mary Creagh MP, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary. "The government is responsible for checking shoppers are getting what they pay for but seem to have no system in place to do so," she said.
Even though it no longer has responsibility for food labelling, the government has asked the FSA to investigate where the mis-labelled horse meat originated. The agency told Channel 4 News this evening that mis-labelled meat products are in breach of food standards laws.
However if Tesco's Value Beefburgers, which were found to have highest horse meat content, had been labelled as containing horse meat they would be perfectly legal and fit for human consumption.
"Although I doubt they would have been flying off the shelves," an FSA spokesperson said.
The DNA tests found horse in the following products:
Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers
Tesco Beef Quarter Pounders
Oakhurst Beef Burgers in Aldi
Moordale Quarter Pounders in Lidl
Dunnes Stores' Flamehouse Chargrilled Quarter Pounders
Two varieties of Iceland Quarter Pounders
16 January 2013