Horsemeat in Tesco burgers case 'may lead to prosecutions'

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Media captionFood minister David Heath said there were moves to consider whether legal action was "appropriate"

Criminal prosecutions may take place after horse and pig meat were found in beefburgers, a minister has said.

Food minister David Heath told MPs that the contamination was "almost certainly a matter of criminality".

Horse and pig DNA has been found in some burgers sold by Tesco, Iceland, Lidl and Aldi and Dunnes.

On Thursday, Tesco took out adverts in British newspapers apologising for the matter and promising to investigate.

In its advertisement, which has the headline "We Apologise", Tesco says: "We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise.

"So here's our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we'll come back and tell you.

"And we will work harder than ever with all our suppliers to make sure this never happens again."

'Culturally taboo'

Mr Heath made a statement in response to an emergency question to the Commons by shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh.

He told the house the Food Standards Agency had set up a four-point action plan in response to the contamination, which was originally discovered in Ireland earlier this week.

The agency was to carry out an urgent review of the traceability of food products, which was to be completed by Friday he said.

It was also looking into the methodology of detecting contaminants, reviewing whether legal action was appropriate and taking an overview of how it worked alongside other agencies.

Ms Creagh said there was "understandable" consumer anger.

"Consumers who avoid pork for religious reasons will be upset they may have unwittingly eaten it and eating horse is strongly culturally taboo in the United Kingdom.

"The food industry lobbies vigorously for a light-touch regulation system from government. Testing, tracking and tracing ingredients is expensive but not testing will cost retailers, processors, British farmers and consumers much more."

The shadow minister said the axing of 700 trading standards officers in job cuts and a £12m reduction in meat inspection budgets could make food fraud more widespread.

Labour MPs called on the government to reverse the policy.


Mr Heath told Ms Creagh: "It is very important neither you, nor anyone else in this House, talks down the British food industry at a time when the standards in that industry are of a very high level.

"Because something has been discovered in Ireland, which is serious, which may lead to criminal proceedings, does not undermine the very serious efforts which are taken by retailers, by processors and by producers in this country to ensure traceability and ensure standards of food that are available to consumers."

He added that there manufacturers had a responsibility to establish the provenance of the ingredients in the food they offered.

Image caption Officials said the meat came from two processing plants in the Irish Republic and one in England

"This [the beefburger case] is probably a matter of criminality, it's been detected and it's being dealt with, but it's quite wrong to extrapolate from that and say such matters are commonplace within the food industry when they are not."

Cuts to the Food Standards Agency should not compromise its work, he continued.

On Tuesday, it emerged Irish food inspectors had found almost 30% horsemeat in one brand sold by Tesco. Smaller amounts of horsemeat as well as pig DNA were found in other products.

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

Irish food inspectors have identified two plants in the Republic and one in Yorkshire where the contaminated meat was processed.

Mr Heath said it had probably originated in a "third party country".

The products identified, which pose no risk to public health, have been withdrawn from supermarket shelves.

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