Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee - Tesco, Iceland - Contamination of beef products

by Emily Hoquee, Parliamentary Analyst, DeHavilland 31. January 2013 12:34

On Wednesday, Tesco and Iceland gave evidence to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee on recent discoveries of contamination in beef products.

Overview

During the meeting of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, MPs were told that Tesco was “appalled” to discover its beef products had been contaminated with horsemeat. 

Later they heard that the supermarket planned to commence its own new DNA testing regime and share the results with the Food Standards Agency.

The Committee heard from:

  • Trish Twohig, Technical Manager, Iceland
  • Tim Smith, Group Technical Director, Tesco

Summary

Speciation testing

Opening the session, Conservative MP and Committee Chair Anne McIntosh asked how and when the witnesses first heard about the food contamination. 

Mr Smith confirmed that Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) contacted him to tell him on 15 January.

The Chair asked if there was anything of concern beforehand.

Mr Smith confirmed there wasn’t and said Tesco carried out its own speciation testing.

Ms Twohig added that Iceland also carried out speciation testing annually.

The Chair asked how the products were labelled.

Mr Smith confirmed that Tesco labelled according to EU rules and provided its customers with as much information as possible.

Continuing, he said he was “appalled” that one of its products had been found to have 29 per cent horsemeat and that was why Tesco had apologised to its customers.

The supermarket withdrew all its affected products and was now conducting its own tests on the burgers, he stated, adding that Tesco had found presence but not gross contamination in its products so far, and had shared those results with the FSA.

Following on, Mr Smith said Tesco had added an extra layer to its surveillance and was investing in DNA sampling of meat products where there was a potential risk to consumers.

The Chair asked Mr Smith if he was concerned to learn that the contamination could have gone for a year.

In reply, he said Ministers had told him they suspected contamination started in May 2012.

Legal advice

Labour MP Barry Gardiner asked the witnesses if they had sought legal advice following the contamination.

Mr Smith confirmed he had but Tesco had not been informed of any possible prosecutions yet.

Mr Gardiner remarked that Tesco was “notorious” for meticulously checking its supply chain, but had failed to pick up that its burgers contained horsemeat.

Mr Smith explained that the surveillance the supermarket carried out equated to 22,000 tests a year and it tested 40 per cent of products for quality.

That cost more than £3m per year and was done to give customers the best possible deal, he added.

Mr Gardiner pressed the issue and suggested that three site visits a year was not adequate.

Mr Smith replied that the tests that were done went all the way back up the supply chain and the supermarket had approved seven different suppliers to supplier Silvercrest.

However, Silvercrest chose to use suppliers that Tesco had not approved or audited and if someone chose to step outside the process deliberately, it was impossible for the supermarket to check a supplier abroad it did not even know existed, he argued.

Tesco had let its customers down, it had taken action and was “getting on with it,” he further stated.

Public apology

Labour MP Thomas Docherty noted that Iceland had failed to make a public apology.

Ms Twohig replied Ireland was “extremely disappointed” and was taking the matter seriously. She added that she was sorry about what had happened.

Mr Docherty asked how Tesco and Iceland would share its new DNA testing with the FSA and FSAI.

Responding, Mr Smith confirmed that Tesco would commence that testing immediately and would be engaging with the regulatory authorities and the European food safety authority.

He said he saw no reason why the data could not be aggregated and passed to the regulators, even if they did not require it.

Ms Twohig stated that Iceland’s burgers did not come from Silvercrest and within the first 24 hours of knowing there was a problem, she had asked supplier ABP Food Group to test everything it had made for the supermarket.

Iceland had historically carried out speciation tests and going forward would add equine to that too, she added.

Mr Docherty asked how much revenue Tesco had lost since the scandal.

Mr Smith could not say as the investigation was still going, but he estimated that would be “a lot bigger” than £1m.

Liberal Democrat MP Dan Rogerson asked why the facilities had not been cleaned down at the end of each day, and he believed 0.1 per cent was potentially a lot of contamination.

In reply, Ms Twohig said that was worrying but the levels were forensic DNA levels and the requirements for hygiene were different that for DNA contamination. However, Iceland was working on improving cleaning.

Conservative MP Neil Parish asked the witnesses if they were suspicious of cheap products they were selling as “a burger contains all sorts of things.”

Mr Smith replied that Tesco did not have a different set of standards for its premium or value products and it conducted the same rigorous level of checks, whatever the product was.

Mr Parish pointed to the cost of Iceland burgers.

Ms Twohig said Iceland was “absolutely passionate” about the quality of its products and it would not compromise the quality of any of its ingredients.

Mr Parish asked if it was it acceptable to have any level of contamination whatsoever.

In reply, Mr Smith said Tesco had spoken to faith groups and would continue to do so, adding that what was “clean and hygienic” was not necessarily the same as “free from.”

Labour MP Mrs Mary Glindon asked for guarantees that the cost of extra DNA testing would not be passed on to customers.

Mr Smith confirmed that and said it was fair that Tesco paid the cost.

Emily Hoquee, Parliamentary Analyst

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