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Horse Meat Scandal: Environment Secretary Owen Paterson To Meet Supermarkets And Retailers

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Environment Secretary Owen Paterson will meet representatives of leading supermarkets and food retail trade bodies on Monday to press them to do more to restore public confidence in food following the horse meat scandal.

Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons are among those confirmed to be attending the meeting in Westminster along with the Institute of Grocery Distribution and the Food and Drink Federation.

It comes after the chief executive of one supermarket traded criticism with the Local Government Association after accusing councils of helping drive down the quality of food used in public sector contracts.

horsemeat scandal

Downing Street has emphasised that it was up to the food industry to rebuild confidence among consumers

Paterson yesterday called for a Europe-wide overhaul of meat testing, saying the current system relies too heavily on trusting paperwork that comes with meat shipments.

"The whole problem we have is that the system ... which is laid down from above trusts the paperwork," he told Sky News's Murnaghan programme.

"So it trusts that the pallet conforms to the piece of paper. No-one checks what is on the pallet often enough, no-one checks what is in production often enough, no-one checks the finished product often enough.

"We have agreed in this particular issue there will be Europe-wide testing for horse DNA, there will be Europe-wide testing for bute, which is a major advance.

"When this is through I want to have a proper look at the whole system."

Paterson also said he had asked the Food Standards Agency to investigate claims that Government ministers were warned in 2011 that horse meat was illegally entering the human food chain.

John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, now part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), told the Sunday Times he helped draft a letter to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in April that year.

But he told the paper the letter to former minister Sir Jim Paice on behalf of Britain's largest horse meat exporter, High Peak Meat Exports, which warned that flesh with possible drug residue getting into food could blow up into a scandal, was ignored.

Sir Jim said he did not remember seeing the warnings.

Tests on 2,501 beef products last week revealed 29 positive results, relating to Aldi's special frozen beef lasagne and special frozen spaghetti bolognese, Co-op frozen quarter pounder burgers, Findus beef lasagne, Rangeland's catering burger products, and Tesco value frozen burgers and value spaghetti bolognese.

Pub and hotel group Whitbread pulled lasagne and burgers from their menus after revealing they had become the latest company to admit horse DNA had been found in its food.

Horse meat was also discovered in school dinners, with cottage pies testing positive for horse DNA sent to 47 Lancashire schools before being withdrawn.

Malcolm Walker, chief executive of frozen food firm Iceland, said the blame for contamination lay less with supermarkets and more with the catering industry and local authorities who provide school and hospital meal, saying their drive to pay less and less for food was driving down quality.

"If we're going to blame somebody, let's start with local authorities because there's a whole side to this industry which is invisible," he said.

"That's the catering industry. Schools, hospitals - it's massive business for cheap food and local authorities award contracts based purely on one thing: price.

"So, if you're looking to blame somebody who's driving down food quality, it's invisible. It's schools, it's hospitals, it's prisons, it's local authorities who are driving this down."

The Local Government Association (LGA) said Walker was "a little confused".

"The law is 100% clear that it is the responsibility of the manufacturer, supplier and retailer to make sure the product they sell us is what they say it is," an LGA spokesman said.

"There has been a major supply chain failure. That's not the fault of consumers, councils or hospitals.

"The companies that supply our food need to take responsibility and focus on getting their house in order.

"The vast majority of retailers, caterers and manufacturers are doing this. Iceland should do the same."

A spokeswoman for Downing Street said: "There is a job to try to address consumer confidence. That is the responsibility of the retailers and the meat industry."

In response to questions that ministers were warned in 2011 that horse meat was illegally entering the food chain, the spokeswoman said that Defra had taken action in January 2012 to increase the checks on horse passports.