Shoppers making a special trip to their high-street butcher in the hope of avoiding eating something unexpected may have to think again after it emerged yesterday that local authorities across England are failing to conduct food standards checks.
The revelation, which comes as councils are supposedly stepping up testing for horsemeat in beef products served at schools and hospitals, puts more than 7 million people at risk, a leading scientist warned.
Figures buried on the Food Standards Agency website show that councils in Bolton, Solihull, Wigan and Kensington and Chelsea are among those that took zero samples for testing last year.
Duncan Campbell, one of Britain's most senior food inspectors, said: "Local authorities are there to protect the public. But census data shows that 7 million people live in areas where they are not doing any sampling at all." He said there were public health implications. "We're not just talking about horsemeat. They're also not taking samples from fried chicken joints, to check for salmonella, or looking to see if halal minced lamb might contain beef."
Almost one in three Britons have stopped eating ready meals following revelations that some processed products contained up to 100 per cent horsemeat, a ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday shows. Seven per cent of people say they have stopped eating meat altogether. More than half agreed that meat imports should be banned until the authorities could be sure of their origin.
The FSA found last week that one in 75 beef ready-meal products tested had been shown to contain horse. Products that tested positive for at least 1 per cent horse included own-brand meals or burgers sold by Tesco, Aldi and the Co-op as well as Findus lasagne and Rangeland catering burgers.
It emerged yesterday that ministers are planning to abandon plans to opt out of new European Union regulations requiring producers and retailers to state exactly what is in their mincemeat.The Government had planned to request a derogation from labelling rules on "loose meat", claiming that the move would limit regulation and cut costs for businesses. But ministers have laid plans for a u-turn after a parliamentary report on the horsemeat crisis said: "This is not the time for the Government to be proposing reducing the labelling standards applied to British food."
An assessment of the opt-out plan, published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), revealed that much of Britain's mincemeat has too much "filler", including fat and connective tissue. It warned that "a significant proportion of minced meat sold in the UK contains a greater proportion of collagen [connective tissue] than would be permitted" under the new rules.
"There are very sound reasons for proposing this derogation and we are consulting for views on it," a senior source at Defra said last night. "However, we take the point that it would not be sensible to be talking about giving less information when the public are so concerned over what they don't know about what might be in their food. I think this 'preferred option' will be redrawn, or even shelved, long before the consultation process is over."
The coalition has largely escaped blame, with 44 per cent agreeing that the Government had handled the situation well, compared with 30 per cent who disagreed. A separate survey for The IoS found that more than half of respondents blamed the meat scandal on manufacturers, but only 7 per cent of the 1,784 people polled held supermarkets responsible.
Mary Creagh MP, shadow Environment Secretary, said: "The Government has published the names of the retailers where products contain horse. They should now publish the names of the catering companies and the products that contain horse. Only complete transparency will reassure people they have a grip on this situation."
Philip Clarke, Tesco's chief executive, promised to "open up" its supply chain so that customers know about the food they eat, pledging a "new benchmark … to give you confidence that if it isn't on the label, it isn't in the product". Malcolm Walker, chief executive of Iceland, said retailers had not done enough to reassure customers. "But it's difficult for them because as this saga unfolds, it gets worse and worse."
A snap poll of shoppers at several central London supermarkets yesterday found many were shunning ready meals containing meat. Katie Crecelius, an American law student shopping in Tesco, said: "When I got here a month ago I bought loads of frozen ready meals because it's easy, but now I don't get any. I'm off any meat from Tesco for sure."
* An earlier version of this article listed Brent among authorities which conducted no sampling in relation to food standards last year. In fact, while the authority undertook no sampling exercises in relation to ‘food hygiene’, it carried out 111 such exercises with regard to ‘food standards’ issues.
Good food fast and on a budget
If you want to give ready meals and processed food a wide berth, what are your options?
However tight your food budget, there's no need to give up meat, says Anna Atkins, founder of LemonSqueezy.eu, a cookery website for busy people who care about what they eat.
"Go for quality and be creative. Meat doesn't have to be the centrepiece of a meal. A small piece of good-quality steak goes a long way stir-fried with vegetables, and can be ready in the time it takes to microwave a frozen lasagne.
"Cheaper cuts of meat such as pork belly, lamb neck fillets, and brisket are full of flavour. They tend to need marinating or slow cooking, but the hands-on prep time is no more than 15 minutes and then these cuts look after themselves.
"Always go for the best quality ingredients you can afford, as opposed to so-called 'value' versions of more expensive foods. Spaghetti tossed with fresh broccoli and chilli oil will be bursting with flavour and goodness, whereas a cheap piece of chicken will be tasteless and shrink to nothing when you cook it.
"Try making more use of beans, lentils and other pulses. They are cheap, fantastic in salads, soups and stews, and are a great source of protein and fibre. In Italy, pulses are called 'la carne dei poveri' or 'poor man's meat'."
If you choose to give up meat altogether, you need to eat a varied diet to stay healthy, says Lemon Squeezy's nutrition expert Caroline Sherlock.
"Animal products contain all the amino acids essential for health but most vegetarian protein sources don't, so you need to combine foods to make sure you're getting it right.
"Don't just choose cheese for protein. Healthy vegetarian eating means nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and legumes, with moderate portions of dairy foods.
"A balanced vegetarian diet reduces the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. It's great for your health and your wallet."
* Additional reporting by Tomas Jivanda