MPs questioned FSA chief executive Catherine Brown (l) and Lord Rooker (r)

MPs questioned FSA chief executive Catherine Brown (l) and Lord Rooker (r)

The horse-meat-in-burgers scandal rumbled on this week. Tesco, The Co-op and Aldi ended some contracts with the supplier at the centre of the affair and sought to reassure consumers of their efforts to improve food quality. Meanwhile, in Westminster, UK regulator The Food Standards Agency was in the spotlight. Dean Best reports on the issues that emerged from the regulator's appearance before MPs.

UK food safety officials faced a grilling this week as the country's politicians sought to find answers as to how burgers contaminated with horse DNA entered the food chain.

Catherine Brown, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, and Lord Rooker, the chair of the organisation, appeared before the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to answer questions from MPs on a scandal that has shaken the trust in the country's food supply.

Given it is only just over two weeks since the contamination came to light, Brown and Lord Rooker were unable to give full answers to some of the questions. Investigations by the FSA, its counterparts in Ireland (where one of the plants found to have supplied the burgers is based) and by officials in Poland (from where Dublin has said the offending ingredient was sourced) are ongoing, Brown said.

Tellingly, Brown was, at present, unable to say whether the various checks in the supply chain had failed and led to the filler ingredient in Poland reaching burgers supplied by ABP Food Group's Silvercrest plant to retailers including Tesco.

"I don't think yet we can be clear there was a breakdown," Brown told the committee, when asked if there had been a breakdown in traceability. "As we keep going through - and this is why it takes a while - as you keep going through and going through it could happen but I don't think it has happened yet."

Numerous food safety scandals in recent years have underlined how difficult it can be to map out every stage in the supply chain. And, although strictly speaking this is a situation less about food safety and more about contamination, the horse meat affair has again illustrated the problem.

One member of the committee later criticised Tesco for not, in his view, applying the same rigour in its inspection and oversight of its meat supply base as its produce growers. However, Tesco has claimed the filler ingredient came from a supplier to ABP the retailer had not approved. In some ways, therefore, Tesco can be absolved of some of the blame for this incident.

That said, it emerged at the hearing the filler ingredient could have been used for over a year. "This supplier had been being used for a year. One of things the Polish authorities is investigating is [whether] that [means] that this filler is likely to have been coming in with this kind of problem for a year," Brown told the committee. Should therefore have ABP, Tesco or the regulators identified the use of the ingredient sooner?

One of the early conclusions we can draw from this affair seems to be that there is a need for closer collaboration between food officials in different countries. Given the UK and Ireland share a border, there are agreements in place on information sharing on food products made and sold in both countries. But there were indications from Lord Rooker that perhaps, in this instance, the "protocol" between the two countries may not have been followed correctly.

Lord Rooker told MPs Irish food officials had told the FSA in November of its plans to test for horse meat and had collected samples for further tests in December. However, Lord Rooker said the FSA were not told about the contamination until a day before the results were made public on 14 January.

"They didn't tell us until a day before they announced it and yet weeks before they must have known what they were finding," Lord Rooker said. "The protocol is absolutely clear that we have an agreement that we disclose things and notify at the earliest opportunity of details of any potential food incident which may effect other or both jurisdictions."

Lord Rooker was asked: Was collaboration between the two organisations not close enough during this incident? He simply nodded.

However, the MPs also asked some pointed questions about the UK FSA's testing regime. Brown said the tests used by the FSA's counterpart in Ireland that picked up the horse DNA were "not an accredited methodology we commonly use" - but this sparked concern over whether UK officials would have picked up on the contamination if they did not use the type of tests used across the Irish Sea.

Brown insisted the FSA would have found the contamination but, tellingly, admitted the agency would not have tested for horse DNA in the first place as that was not on its list of priorities for 2013.

"The real issue is that we wouldn't have tested because our surveillance approach is risk-based and largely intelligence-led," Brown explained. "This year, we're focusing on formaldehyde in kitchenware, contamination of baby milk, false vodka and e. coli in sprouted seeds, among others. We say: 'What would be the things we would test for because we're worried and we have reason to think might be there?' It's not that we don't have a test that could find horse DNA in beef products, it's that we had no intelligence to lead us to believe that it would have been a thing to do."

Lord Rooker added: "The last time the agency tested for horse meat, we did it on the basis of evidence and intelligence that we received that caused us to do the checks, back in 2003. When we did test for horse meat, you've got to know what you are testing for."

Their answers did not satisfy the committee. Anne McIntosh MP, the chair of the committee, replied: "I'm speaking as a UK consumer. You don't do the tests, you don't have a methodology, you only base on evidence. How do we know this horse meat has not been existing in these burgers for months, if not years?"

Brown insisted the FSA does have a method of testing for horse DNA and had a "significant programme of risk-based surveillance". However, she added: "We hadn't identified horse meat in burgers as a likely significant risk in this country. It is possible - and that's why it's very important we get to the bottom of the Polish connection and the Irish investigation - that these burgers have been on sale in this country. The probable limit of possibility is a year as it's been a year that this supplier has been supplying."

Again, Lord Rooker sought to further explain the FSA's testing regime. He highlighted that there were over 80,000 food samples taken last year, with 20,000 broken down into compositional samples and tested. "Thousands of food checks are taken, some are routine surveillance, many of them are based on worries we've had because we've had some intelligence on things that might be wrong. In this case, we didn't have any intelligence, hints, notification that there might be horse meat in products on sale in the UK, otherwise we would have gone to look for them. That's the way we operate."

In some ways, one can sympathise with the FSA. In a time of fiscal constraint, it has to prioritise what areas to focus on. Even in times of less pressure on the public purse, decisions on what to test and how to divert resources should still be made. To test everything and everywhere would be folly. Those tested - manufacturers, catering establishements, wholesalers and retailers - must play a central role in shoring up the supply chain and trying to ensure food is safe.

However, there was little sympathy elsewhere on the committee. Barry Gardiner MP said the FSA had taken 800 samples of meat last year; why, he asked, had the FSA not tested for horse meat in a time of recession?

"We do a constant dynamic risk assessment. The point you're making around 'isn't there a greater risk of fraud and adulteration' is in our risk register. I don't think one would have thought it was the most obvious risk of adulteration," Brown said.

In a week when Tesco, The Co-op, Aldi and Burger King have ended some of their contracts with ABP, the FSA's appearance before MPs may not have hit the headlines. Nonetheless, it revealed some valuable insight into the oversight of the food supply chain and some issues for industry and regulator to chew over.