Murnaghan 10.02.13 Interview with Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Environment Secretary, on horsemeat scandal

February 10, 2013


DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now then, the horsemeat scandal has attracted jokes a plenty of course but there is an extremely serious issue here. How long has horsemeat been in the human food chain and could there be a health risk from drugs that are given to horses? I’m joined now by the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mary Creagh. A very good morning to you, it’s actually an extremely serious issue and it could have been going on, that question though, it could have been going on for years, it could date back to the last Labour government and perhaps beyond couldn’t it?

MARY CREAGH: Well we haven’t tested for horsemeat in the food chain since 2003 and all these tests are done on the basis of best available intelligence. I think the intelligence really started to come through last year that horses were entering the food chain and potentially being passed off as beef and I raised a couple of weeks ago with Ministers the issue about horses being slaughtered in the UK, testing positive for bute, this banned animal medicine, and entering the food chain. I was told then there was nothing to worry about but subsequent answers from Ministers have revealed that at least seven horses have been exported from this country and have entered the food chain in Europe.

DM: So let me be clear about that, you do think that this government has a degree of culpability and its speed of reaction, as this has emerged, is that it?

MC: I think ministers have been completely behind the curve. Owen Patterson should have ordered tests on those burgers when they were withdrawn three weeks ago, we’d now be in a position to tell the consumers how far the adulteration has gone or whether they are able to trust processed meat. Instead he had his panic summit yesterday, he got the supermarkets in, failed to invite the local authority caterers in and some of these very big companies providing food to hospitals and schools, where people don’t have the choice about what they’re going to eat.

DM: Given that you said it could have been in the food chain for at least ten years, what’s a couple of weeks? It doesn’t really make that much of a difference does it?

MC: I’m not saying it has been in the food chain for ten years.

DM: Well it could have been, we just don’t know.

MC: Well these products are mostly consumed in continental Europe because horse is not part of our culture, it’s not something we eat in this country but what we don’t know … what we do know is what hasn’t happened in the last month. What hasn’t happened is Ministers haven’t been liaising with their Irish counterparts and I’m not clear whether the police are actually involved in the United Kingdom either. I’ve passed on material to the police on Friday, I’ve made an offer to Owen Patterson to make that available and I’ve shared that with the FSA yesterday.

DM: But of course from the consumer end of things, what the consumer wants to know is that they are eating what it says on the packaging and how do we go about sorting that out and sorting it out quickly, given that the tentacles seem to have spread at least all over Europe?

MC: Well the FSA has given very clear advice about the beef lasagne product and they’ve said that people should not eat that because it is now being tested for the presence of that banned chemical bute and they’ve asked people to take it back to the shops for a refund. What we cannot have is the Secretary of State, Owen Patterson, going on the television on Friday night saying I’d happily eat it. You cannot have government giving out mixed messages to people, it’s no wonder they’re confused when you have the Minister saying one thing and the Food Standards body saying don’t eat it.

DM: But the government, it seems that you’re heaping a lot of blame on the government here but it’s these criminal gangs we suspect that have actually been doing it, the government is trying to deal with it but of course they have nothing to do with the cause.

MC: Well I think, we knew from Ireland nearly a month ago now that there was this problem with horse being passed off as beef. What the Findus episode has showed is that there is now a problem with the French Romanian suppliers as well so Ministers were perhaps hoping this would blow over, go away, we’d all have a few good horse burger jokes about night mares and bits between our teeth and actually what this has revealed is it is much more wide spread. The food industry needs to act with total transparency, government needs to be transparent about what they’re doing but what we cannot have is a drip-drip-drip of information on the Food Standards Agency website coming out every night at about eight o’clock at night, which is quick little paragraphs where you have to read between the lines.

DM: But you would accept it’s a very complicated web going on here from the abattoir, the suppliers, the various sources that meat is coming from, that is going to mean that we’re not getting a full picture instantly.

MC: But it’s government’s job to get across the complexity and make it simple and give clear, simple, unambiguous advice to consumer and to local authority caterers about what they can do. They’ve ordered these tests with local authorities through the Trading Standards Officers and they’ve said we want the results back the beginning of March and we’ll publish them at the beginning of April. It’s completely unrealistic to expect people to wait eight weeks to find out what is …

DM: But the only sure thing we can do is start banning imports isn’t it?

MC: Well I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction, I’m not sure that that’s possible and we need to be very careful about going along the protectionist …

DM: We know British beef because of all the labelling because of BSE and all that, we know its provenance, but just to be sure because as you admitted, it is complex, well then surely the only safe thing to do is to make sure there is nothing coming in that we can’t be sure about.

MC: What we already know is that British abattoirs are exporting horse that is contaminated with bute to Europe. What we’re not clear about is whether any of those abattoirs are sending that meat into the United Kingdom so a trade ban may not be the answer to this.

DM: Okay, Mary Creagh, thank you very much indeed for coming in, good to see you.

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