The claim

“We’ve now required industry to test all product lines of processed beef products such as meatballs, burgers, lasagne so that we know once and for all what’s in our food.”
Steve Wearne, Food Standards Agency, 08 February 2013

The background

The contaminated meat saga gallops on, following the revelation that leading brand Findus has been selling lasagne containing up to 100 per cent horsemeat.

Supermarkets Asda and Tesco, whose Value range burgers have also been found to contain significant amounts of horse, announced they were pulling from the shelves other processed beef dishes made by Comigel, the French firm who supplied Findus.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has announced two new waves of testing in response to the scandal.

The agency is going to get 28 local councils to swoop on shops at random and test meat products.

Fair enough. But the FSA also separately announced that it would “require” all meat suppliers and retailers who deal in minced beef to test all their product lines and report back within a week, a massive claim that set FactCheck’s ears twitching.

The analysis

The full statement from Catherine Brown, chief executive of the FSA, was posted on the agency’s website last night.

It reads: “Following our investigations into Findus products, the FSA is now requiring a more robust response from the food industry in order to demonstrate that the food it sells and serves is what it says it is on the label.

“We are demanding that food businesses conduct authenticity tests on all beef products, such as beef burgers, meatballs and lasagne, and provide the results to the FSA. The tests will be for the presence of significant levels of horse meat.”

The point was rammed home by other FSA representatives in a string of interviews today.

Director for Wales Steve Wearne told ITV viewers the move would enable consumers to “know once and for all what’s in our food”.

And Director of Operations Andrew Rhodes told the BBC: “We’re demanding that all of the manufacturers and all of the retailers test all of their products to rule out any further contamination.”

But there are two big problems with the plan to make the food industry test its own processed beef products.

The first is the scope of the proposal. The FSA appears to be saying that it wants all manufacturers and retailers in the country to test all their product lines.

This could be interpreted to mean that every meat company in the country, from the biggest abattoir to the high street butcher, will have to test their own products and send the results in by next week.

Depending on the nature of the analysis, this could mean many thousands of businesses flooding food testing laboratories with work and getting the results in just seven days – an extremely unlikely scenario.

The British Retail Consortium told us the FSA’s announcement had taken its members by surprise, and there are now ongoing meetings to “clarify” just what is really being expected of businesses.

A spokesman for the industry body told us: “Blanket testing of thousands of products, within the one-week timescale being suggested, is impractical for the food industry and laboratories.”

The second problem is that the Food Standards Agency does not actually have the power to order companies to test their products, or to sanction them if they fail to comply.

Some retailers have agreed to step up the tests that they already do on their products.

But if firms don’t volunteer to take part in this new , there’s nothing the FSA can do about it, making all this talk of “requiring” and “demanding” action from industry seem rather meaningless.

Industry insiders have also told us that they don’t believe any analysis short of the very sophisticated DNA testing which has so far exposed the horse contamination will do the job.

The FSA is not actually specifying that the testing it wants to see will be DNA-based, although the agency assured us that there are other tests that will confirm the presence of horse and pig meat in beef.

The agency confirmed to us that it does not in fact have statutory powers to demand that companies comply with the testing demand, but a spokesman stressed that companies do have a legal duty to comply with the law on food labelling.

The watchdog also admitted it had not yet finalised how many companies it would contact over testing.

All of which demonstrates that, with seven days to go until 15 February, the details of this plan are still very much up in the air.

The verdict

This was a bold announcement from the FSA, which is no doubt under mounting pressure to act decisively to get a grip on this scandal.

But the move looks an awful lot like an empty gesture.

The FSA can’t legally “require” companies to carry out tests, the level of accuracy has not yet been specified, and it’s inconceivable that every meat manufacturer and retailer could possibly comply within the timeframe the FSA has set out.

The agency insisted to us that the one-week deadline shows it is taking this issue seriously, and businesses that have been approached so far have been receptive to the idea of more testing.

By Patrick Worrall

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