Catherine Brown, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) made the statement at a meeting of the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee at Westminster this afternoon (January 30).
MPs on the committee sought evidence about the effectiveness of traceability, labelling and hygiene standards in the food supply chain in the wake of the horse meat scandal.
At the same meeting, FSA chairman Jeff Rooker revealed deep divisions between UK organisation and its Irish counterpart, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), which discovered the contamination.
He accused the FSAI of failing to adhere to protocol by not informing him as soon as they had an indication of a problem.
‘They didn’t tell us’
“They didn't tell us about this until the day before they released the information,” said Rooker. “They did two sets of test for a start. The first was in November. We weren't told about this until January 14. That’s a fact.”
When asked by MPs how long she thought burgers containing horse meat had been on the market, Brown said it could have been up to a year.
She said the FSA had not routinely been testing for horse meat, because it had not been identified as a “high risk factor” in the UK.
“It is possible that these burgers have been on sale for a year," said Brown. “When the Polish authorities [where the horsemeat is believed to have originated from] get to the bottom of this we'll know if it has been happening [for that long]."
MPs expressed their surprise that the FSA and local authorities in Britain were not regularly testing for horse meat, especially given the current economic climate.
However, Brown said the UK adopted an intelligence-based approach to its actions.
“We do have tests that could test for horse meat but we had no intelligence to suggest it was something we should do,” she added.
The horse meat controversy began when the FSAI found traces of horse and pig DNA in burgers sold by Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Dunnes Stores.
One sample sold by Tesco contained 29% horse meat.
It is believed around 10M burgers were withdrawn from the market in the wake of the scandal.
It has since been revealed that ABP Foods imported the meat from an unnamed, and according to Tesco “unapproved”, supplier in Poland. The burgers were manufactured at ABP Foods’ Silvercrest factory in County Monaghan, Ireland.
Tesco announced earlier today it had cancelled its contract with Silvercrest because of the “breach of trust”. It also pledged to introduce a DNA testing system − “a significant investment, borne by Tesco” − to stop horse meat from again entering the food chain and to reassure customers.
See FoodManufacture.co.uk tomorrow to find out how senior executives from Tesco and Iceland fared in front of the committee.
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