13/02/2013 15:49 GMT

Horse Meat Scandal: EU Proposes Three-Month DNA Testing

Agriculture ministers have agreed on a three-month programme of DNA testing of processed meat across the European Union as the horse meat scandal intensified.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson emerged from Wednesday's talks in Brussels to announce a three-month, EU-wide DNA testing regime to trace horse meat and to check processed meat on sale for "bute" - the powerful horse anti-inflammatory which could be a health risk if passed on to humans.

Peter Boddy slaughterhouse in Todmorden, one of two British processing plants which were raided and shut down

The proposals from the seven-nation meeting in Brussels will be put to a meeting of the EU's Standing Committee on the Food Chain and is expected to be endorsed.

The idea is to launch the regime of checks in March with 2,500 random tests on processed food for horse DNA and 4,000 for bute. The results will be declared on 15 April.

The scale of DNA tests for April and May will be decided later.

The ministers also agreed on tightening co-ordination between national authorities, using Europol, the Hague-based EU law enforcement agency whose normal remit is create a "safer Europe" by helping member states "in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism".

Mr Paterson left the Brussels meeting to drive to the Hague, to hold a meeting on the horsemeat scandal with Europol officials on Thursday.

Before leaving he said: "I am delighted with the proposal for a three month period of DNA testing of processed products. It is completely intolerable that consumers have been presented with products with beef marked on the label and containing horse."

Mr Paterson also welcomed closer national co-operation to tackle the issue: "A major priority is closer co-ordination between us and Europol is the appropriate agency because it responds to requests from nation states."

He went on: "It is quite clear that we also need a much more effective and rapid transfer of information on this, and that was agreed."

Commissioner Tonio Borg also agreed to speed up publication of a report already being prepared on whether to extend to processed meat existing labelling rules currently only covering fresh meat.

"What was clear(at the meeting) was the absolute unity of purpose of the member states to get to the bottom of this. We do not know exactly what has gone wrong. Investigations are ongoing.

"We do not yet know detail of any of these incidents. We've not got to bottom of any of them."

But Mr Paterson emphasised: "This is a criminal conspiracy to defraud the public. It looks like it has gone beyond incompetence, and now looks as if it is criminal."

Commissioner Borg told the ministers that the evidence so far "does not suggest a health crisis".

Under EU rules horsemeat can be used for the production of minced meat and meat preparations - but it must be declared on the label.

He went on: "The issue before us today is therefore overwhelmingly one of fraudulent labelling rather than one of safety."

He said: "I can assure you that the Commission is very active at both political and technical levels in co-ordinating the ongoing investigations to identify the true picture as soon as possible.

"Analyses are under way to identify the possible presence of residues of veterinary drugs, especially where unlabelled horsemeat has been found.

"Additional information will be circulated as soon as the traceability information has been verified and the analytical results obtained. In this respect, the co-operation between member states and the Commission, especially on the traceability exercises under way, is reassuring."

He said Friday's meeting of the EU Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health would consider a more co-ordinated response to the crisis.

He added: "As I have said, we do not have, at the moment, any evidence to suggest that this scandal poses a threat to public health.

"I would urge member states to step up their investigations and circulate, without delay, any new information, so we can establish the full facts of this issue as early as possible, and thus reassure European consumers."

Earlier, Mr Paterson hinted that investigations by UK food safety authorities may lead to further raids, following action at an abattoir in West Yorkshire and a Welsh processing plant on Tuesday while the prime minister told the House of Commons that anyone involved in passing off horsemeat as beef should face "the full intervention of the law".

Mr Paterson said that yesterday's raids, on the Peter Boddy slaughterhouse in Todmorden and meat processing plant Farmbox Meats at Llandre in Aberystwyth, followed methodical work by the Food Standards Agency, tracing back through the paperwork of companies where horsemeat may be involved.

And he added: "There may be more procedures coming forward but I don't want to prejudice those investigations in public."