The Food Standards Agency has clarified the comprehensive tests on all beef products it “demanded” last night will, in fact, be voluntary, and that it does not have legal powers to compel companies to test products.

In a statement issued last night in the wake of the Findus lasagne revelations, FSA chief executive Catherine Brown said she was demanding a more comprehensive testing programme from food businesses. “The FSA is now requiring a more robust response from the food industry in order to demonstrate that the food it sells and serves is what it says it is on the label,” she said. “We are demanding that food businesses conduct authenticity tests on all beef products, such as beef burgers, meatballs and lasagne, and provide the results to the FSA.”

However, the FSA has since admitted that – despite the tough language used by Brown – companies will not be legally required to carry out tests. “This is not a legal requirement,” a spokeswoman for the FSA said. “However, we have already been working with retailers and suppliers, and have every confidence that they will work with us to provide results.”

At a meeting on Monday, retailers and suppliers agreed to share their own testing results with the FSA to help it build up a more comprehensive picture of contamination in processed meat products. But now that the FSA is asking for even more tests to be carried out, the industry has raised serious concerns about whether the regulator’s demands are reasonable.

The FSA has set a deadline of next Friday (15 February) for companies to provide their test results but the British Retail Consortium said “blanket-testing of thousands of products, within the one-week timescale being suggested, is impractical for the food industry and laboratories”.

This was echoed by one retail source, who suggested that “unless the FSA can magic up some more laboratories”, the 15 February deadline was completely unrealistic. Others voiced concern about laboratories “whacking up their costs” in response to the FSA’s demands.

Asked what it had done to satisfy itself that sufficient testing capacity was available in labs, the FSA said simply “we are working with industry on this”. It declined to say what assessment it had made of how many product lines would need to be tested or what testing methodology would be used.

However, some retailers and suppliers are arguing the FSA should have checked this first – and, given the voluntary nature of the tests, should have asked them if they thought the one-week timeframe was realistic – before making its announcement and raising consumer expectations that may be impossible to meet.