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The beleaguered minister at the centre of the horsemeat scandal, Owen Paterson, has asked the Food Standards Agency to investigate claims that the government was warned rogue horsemeat could enter the food chain two years ago.The environment secretary ordered the investigation after it was reported the government was warned in 2011 that horsemeat with possible drug residue was getting into food and that the situation could blow up into a scandal.
“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,” Paterson told Sky News’s Murnaghan programme.
John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, now part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), told the Sunday Times he helped draft a letter to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in April that year that he said was ignored.
The letter to former minister Sir Jim Paice on behalf of Britain’s largest horsemeat exporter, High Peak Meat Exports, also warned the government that its passport scheme, designed to stop meat containing the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, known as bute, getting into the food chain was a “debacle”.
“Defra gave nearly 80 organisations the authority to produce passports and some of them are little better than children could produce … It’s a complete mess,” he said.
Paice said he did not remember seeing the warnings, telling the Sunday Times: “If this information was in Defra and was not being acted upon, it warrants further investigation. I would like to know why on earth I was not being told about it.”
The latest development follows news that rogue horsemeat had been found in meals destined for hospitals and schools. In Lancashire, cottage pies for 47 schools across the county were withdrawn after testing positive for horsemeat. It was not clear how long the contaminated food had been on the menu or how many pupils may have eaten it.
In Northern Ireland, a range of burgers bound for hospitals were withdrawn after officials confirmed they contained equine DNA, and food giant Compass, which supplies more than 7,000 sites in the UK and Ireland, including schools and hospitals, said a burger product it supplied to two colleges and a small number of offices in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had tested positive.
On Sunday, the boss of supermarket Iceland, Malcolm Walker, said local councils were to blame for driving down food quality with cheap food contracts for schools and hospitals. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Walker said the problem lay with councils buying food from the poorly supplied catering industry.
His comments followed an announcement on Sunday from the managing director of Waitrose, Mark Price, who said that, as a result of recent events, the John Lewis-owned firm was planning to set up its own freezing plant to prevent cross-contamination.
Three men arrested by police as part of the investigation were released on bail on Saturday as officials continued to examine evidence from three plants raided on Friday.
The FSA said it had also passed on evidence from two premises in Tottenham, north London, and one in Hull, East Yorkshire, to Europol – the European Union’s law enforcement agency – after investigators, accompanied by police officers and local authority officials, removed meat samples for testing.
The FSA has conceded it is unlikely the exact number of people in the UK who have unwittingly eaten horsemeat will ever be known. Its chief executive, Catherine Brown, said testing was the right way to address the issue and that the focus would be on areas of higher risk.
On Friday, the FSA revealed that 2,501 tests were conducted on beef products, with 29 results positive for undeclared horsemeat at or more than 1%.
The 29 results related to seven different products, which have already been reported and withdrawn from sale. The products linked to the positive results were confirmed as Aldi’s special frozen beef lasagne and special frozen spaghetti bolognese, the Co-op’s frozen quarter-pounder burgers, Findus beef lasagne, Rangeland’s catering burger products, and Tesco value frozen burgers and value spaghetti bolognese.
As the results were confirmed, pub and hotel group Whitbread became the latest company to admit horse DNA had been found in its food, saying its meat lasagnes and beefburgers had been affected.
The firm, which owns Premier Inn, Beefeater Grill and Brewers Fayre, said the products had been removed from their menus and would not be replaced until further testing had been carried out.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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