One of Nicola Sturgeon's most senior advisers ordered civil servants to investigate the use of the Union flag on Scotch beef packaging as Scotland recorded a two-month high in coronavirus deaths.
Kate Higgins said it was “not on” for Marks and Spencer to sell Scotch beef packaged with a Union flag, emails obtained under Freedom of Information laws disclosed.
She warned that if agency Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) was aware that Scotch beef was being marked as British “we have a problem”.
The comments on Sept 8 came as Ms Sturgeon warned that Covid was “accelerating” across the country. She added: “I have reported three deaths today – that’s the first time I’ve had to do that in more than two months.”
The First Minister asked the nation to “treat the current situation with the seriousness it most certainly merits.”
After the SNP adviser pushed civil servants to investigate, QMS said Marks & Spencer had agreed to “review the fresh meat labelling”.
Global pandemic, rising cases, rising hospitalisation.
Yet what is the priority for one of Nicola Sturgeon’s special advisors? 🤷♀️
Labelling of Beef. Staggering. https://t.co/9Bb32eSLLM
— Jackson Carlaw MSP (@Jackson_Carlaw) October 15, 2020
SNP ministers were accused of leaning on Marks and Spencer previously in 2018 after Scotch whisky and gin was listed on its website as being from the UK.
But the Scottish Tories said the latest intervention was incomprehensible given "we are fighting a pandemic and 100,000 jobs are at risk."
Oliver Mundell, the party's rural spokesman, said: "In the middle of a pandemic, it’s jaw-dropping that a key SNP Government adviser is furiously investigating how the Union flag ended up on a packet of meat.
“It’s an embarrassing reveal of the priorities of the SNP government. I’m incredibly proud of Scottish produce but this is petty, small and trivial. The First Minister should explain if her government endorses this total waste of time.”
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The email chain shows Ms Higgins raised the issue on Sept 8, asking QMS whether "Aberdeen Angus and other beef products" being sold by Marks and Spencer were from Scotland as they were marked as "British beef".
"Or have they stopped labelling it as Scotch beef even though it is. Because it’s not on really," she said.
She was told by Scottish Government civil servants later that day there was nothing to require the retailer to label beef as Scottish rather than British.
"But if we were to insist that Scotch Beef can only be labelled as such, we run the risk that M&S go elsewhere for their supplies," the official warned.
— Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) October 15, 2020
But an email from QMS to her a week later said: "The M&S team have committed to review the fresh meat labelling as there were some products they identified that should be packaged as Scotch but were labelled as British.
“[Redacted] said he thought this may be due to a hangover from the initial Covid panic buying period when much of the range was labelled as British to ensure maximum volumes were processed."
QMS said they had agreed to "review the in-store range in the coming weeks to monitor the Scotch brands and report back to M&S".
Ms Higgins replied that was a "great outcome" as she knew how the retailer was "committed" to Scottish farm produce "and to then see it all labelled as British in a Scottish store was disconcerting".
A spokesman for Fergus Ewing, the SNP's Rural Economy Secretary, said: "Scotch Beef is an iconic product which enjoys protected named status, which should always be safeguarded and promoted – particularly during the pandemic, which has hit our food and drink sector hard.
“The Scottish Government makes no apologies for promoting our world class produce at a time when it is under threat like never before due to the reckless Brexit policies pursued by the Tories – who have disgracefully just voted to water down food standards – and championed by the likes of Oliver Mundell.”
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