Police and food hygiene officers raided and shut down a British abattoir and a meat manufacturer tonight as part of an inquiry into the adulteration of beef products with horsemeat.
The Food Standards Agency said it had uncovered apparently “blatant misleading of consumers” by the manufacture of kebabs and burgers that allegedly contained horse. Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, called it “absolutely shocking”, as he prepared to fly to Brussels for a horsemeat summit.
Investigators, backed by police, swooped on a West Yorkshire abattoir and a meat-processing plant in north Wales and ordered their immediate closure after seizing paperwork, including the companies’ client lists.
In a day of rapid developments in the deepening scandal, Waitrose said it had withdrawn its Essential British Frozen Meatballs after pork was detected in two batches. The supermarket said the “contradictory” results on the meatballs with a best-before date of 13 June and 13 August had caused it to withdraw them from sale.
The FSA said it raided the Peter Boddy Slaughterhouse in Todmorden after obtaining information suggesting that it supplied horse carcasses to Farmbox Meats in Aberystwyth. The agency was unable to say which shops had received products from the firms. “We are looking into the circumstances through which meat products, purporting to be beef for kebabs or burgers, were sold when they were in fact horse,” the FSA said.
The raids follow last month’s revelation that beefburgers processed in Ireland and Yorkshire, and sold in British and Irish supermarkets, were found to contain horse meat. The discovery led to the withdrawal from sale of tens of thousands of burgers by shops including Tesco and Iceland, and the precautionary withdrawal of up to ten million more patties.
Andrew Rhodes, the FSA operations director, said after tonight’s raids: “I ordered an audit of all horse-producing abattoirs in the UK after this issue first arose last month, and I was shocked to uncover what appears to be blatant misleading of consumers. I have suspended both plants immediately while our investigations continue.”
Mr Paterson said: “It is totally unacceptable if any business in the UK is defrauding the public by passing off horse meat as beef. I expect the full force of the law to be brought down on anyone involved in this kind of activity.”
The Peter Boddy Slaughterhouse won planning consent in 2007 despite opposition from residents who claimed it was sited too near homes and its buildings were poorly designed. A representative of Mr Boddy, who had been operating a smaller slaughter operation for nearly 30 years before that, said concerns raised by the authorities were addressed before it opened.
Earlier this week, Mary Creagh, the Shadow Environment Secretary, said the names of three British companies implicated in horse meat mislabelling had not been passed to major retailers so they could check supply chains.
A leading food scientist claimed that a major shift in UK meat production, ordered at short notice by the European Commission, was at the root of the horse meat scandal. Last year, Brussels abruptly banned the use of desinewed meat (DSM) – the scraps recovered from animal carcasses after the prime cuts have been removed. DSM had long been a major part of the supply chain for British meat products.
Dr Mark Woolfe, a former head of food authenticity at the FSA, said the move left suppliers 48 hours in which to look for alternative sources of cheap meat. This forced them to look abroad, where supply chains were not so well regulated.
Dr Woolfe said “thousands of tonnes” of DSM had been used in British meat products every year and suppliers worked to very tight margins, but when they had to stop using it, retailers such as supermarkets did not offer them any increased prices in compensation. “So a lot of suppliers went abroad to find alternative sources of cheap meat, and that is when things went wrong,” he added.
The blame game: Who’s at fault for contaminating the food chain
Britain produces and slaughters 8,000 horses for human consumption every year, compared with 2.2 million cattle. British beef is a big business with a hard-won reputation for quality. In the wake of the BSE crisis, beef farmers are subject to stringent traceability requirements for all their animals.
Though highly regulated, abattoirs are under scrutiny after claims there is a “murky” side to the meat processing industry. French and British officials pointed the finger at two Romanian abattoirs for supplying horse meat found in beef ready meals.
The European meat supply business is kept moving by a “mafia-like” network of brokers. French-based Comigel sourced its meat, later found to be horse, used in products for Findus and Tesco, from a company using brokers hundreds of miles apart.
Processors, food manufacturers
Comigel used another French company, Spanghero, to source its meat, which found suppliers from across Europe, including Romania. Every consignment of unprocessed meat must be fully traceable, but there is no rule governing origin labelling for processed products like mince.
Ministers state that retailers are responsible for guaranteeing the content of food offered for sale. In the wake of the horse meat-scandal, Tesco has blamed its supplier, Comigel, for apparently failing to follow an agreed manufacturing process.
Food Standards Authority
The independent food regulator stopped regular testing for horse meat DNA in beef or other meats in 2003, adopting instead an “intelligence-led” approach to detect fraud or adulteration. All that has now changed but critics say the FSA took its eye off the ball and should have done more.
The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson insists food safety is a “European competence” which prevents Britain from banning meat imports without proof of a health risk. The European Commission has said the scandal was a “labelling issue”, which individual governments could resolve.
Defra and the Government
The Government has spoken darkly of a conspiracy by organised crime to pass off horse meat as beef. But the Food ministry has been criticised for relieving the Food Standards Agency of control of “food authenticity” and labelling. It has also presided over the loss of 700 trading standards officers in the past two years.