As the horse meat scandal widens, Defra has announced retailers and processors are to carry out wider and more rigorous tests on their meat products to reassure the public of the authenticity of the food they are buying.

Following an emergency summit on Saturday (9 February), Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson said he had asked the industry to publish tests results on their products every three months through the Food Standards Agency.

In addition, the industry would work with the FSA on making checks “further down the food chain”, and inform the FSA “as soon as they become aware of a potential problem in their products”.

These more medium-to-long-term measures will be in addition to the wide-ranging ad hoc industry testing programme that is currently under way on processed meat products, for which initial results are expected this Friday (14 February). The FSA has also been carrying out its own tests through local authorities, with results due to be published in April.

It is not clear at this stage exactly what the industry will be expected to report on a three-monthly basis, how the results will then be published by the FSA and who will pay for additional checks. The costs of the current ad hoc testing regime are being borne by the industry.

Paterson said more testing was vital to restore consumer confidence. “People should have absolute confidence in what they are buying. The responsibility for that lies with the retailers, who need to be absolutely sure that what they’re selling is what they think it is.”

He also told the food industry to “get out there and talk about what they’re doing” to reassure the public of its practices. “I made it very clear that there needs to be openness and transparency in the system for the benefit of consumers,” he added.

First ‘meaningful’ test results by Friday

After the FSA announced on Wednesday that all processed beef products were to be tested by 15 February, some in the industry raised concerns about whether this was a proportionate and realistic demand given the number of products involved and limited lab capacity in the UK.

As reported by on Friday (8 February), the FSA does not have any legal powers to compel companies to test their products and will therefore need to rely on the industry’s voluntary cooperation.

However, following the emergency summit on Saturday, the FSA and Paterson stressed they were given assurances by retailers and processors of that co-operation, and that “meaningful” results would indeed be available by Friday.

Individual companies have also signalled their support for the FSA’s testing regime.

Andrew Caines, group technical director at Cranswick, said the scale of testing proposed by the FSA was “ambitious” but necessary to restore consumer confidence. “I am sure that the number of products which will require testing across the food industry will cause something of a backlog with the laboratories which are able to perform an accredited test for horse DNA, and that this may lead to delays in reporting results, which might mean that the 15 February deadline might not be met by all food companies,” he said.

He added, however, that Cranswick had already identified the products that would need to be tested and “we have been in touch with our laboratory service provider and made arrangements to progress the sampling programme”.

Heinz and Birds Eye – which do not use Comigel, the French supplier that made the Findus beef lasagne, for their products – have also said they are expecting to produce test results for the FSA by the Friday deadline.