Horsemeat: Minister Defends Defra Response

A leading charity claims the government was made aware that illegal horsemeat was in the food chain more than a year ago.

World Horse Welfare says it had a sit-down meeting with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2011, to flag up the problem of horse passports being faked to allow the animals to be slaughtered

Roly Owers, the charity's chief executive, told Sky News that problems had been reported ever since the passport system was set up in 2005.

“We know that in November 2011 we attended a meeting where the issue of the passport system … was discussed with Defra and local authorities,” he said.

It follows claims from John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, now part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), in The Sunday Times that he warned the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) of the potential scandal in April that year, but was ignored.

Mr Young says he followed this up a month later in a letter saying, "are the lunatics in total control of the asylum?"

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has mounted a robust defence of his department's actions following the claims.

He said he had spoken to the FSA's chief executive, Catherine Brown, regarding the claims, which were made before he took up his position.

"I have discussed it with the chief executive of the FSA this morning and she is going to go back through the records and see exactly what was said at the time," he told Sky News' Murnaghan programme.

The Cabinet minister, who has been accused of being "asleep at the wheel" by Labour, said his department could not have been more "active" since the recent revelations.

"We are making progress - a whole lot of premises have been investigated, a large amount of evidence has been taken, and in this country we have been extremely active. Three premises have been investigated, two closed down and a number of arrests made.

"We are completely determined to get to the bottom of this because no matter what the price of the product, the consumer should buy what is on the label. It is a fraud on the public."

He said British actions had triggered Europe-wide testing for horse DNA and bute - as well as coordinated probes into the crisis across the continent.

"Too much of this system is based on trust on paper, and there is not enough testing. We have to get back to more testing of products."

A Defra spokesperson said: "The Secretary of State this morning asked the Chief Executive of the FSA and Defra officials to look into allegations that information about horse passports had not been investigated.

"From those investigations, it's clear that Defra and the FSA have taken action on the issue of potential falsifying of horse passports, including individual enforcement action when information has been passed to us.

"In January 2012 Defra and the FSA increased checks on horse passports, meaning every horse was checked twice, and from last week no horse can enter the food chain until it is confirmed to be free of bute.

"The issues surrounding falsified horse passports are unrelated to the fact that horsemeat has been fraudulently passed off as beef in a number of products."

The FSA said  "During the past 12 months the FSA has increased the number of staff working in horse abattoirs to strengthen our oversight of the system. And from last week we introduced a system where all horses are tested for bute, and carcasses are not allowed into the food chain unless they have tested negative. This complements the protection provided by the horse passport system."

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