Labour’s Barry Gardiner said the company was ruthless in the way it “sent back to farmers any misshapen apples or apples and pears” and questioned why it wasn’t as rigorous in its checks of meat.
At a meeting of the cross-part Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee meeting at Westminster this week (January 30), Gardiner told Tesco technical director Tim Smith: “As a company you are notorious for sending misshapen apples or pears back to farmers, yet you didn’t pick up on the fact that your burgers had 29% horse meat. Surely this is a thing of extraordinary proportions?”
Smith replied by stating Tesco carried out 22,000 surveillance tests and 1,200 audits a year – at a cost of between £3.5M and £4M to the firm.
Level of attention
Nevertheless, Gardiner said Tesco’s three trips in the last year to ABP Foods’ Silvercrest factory in County Monaghan, Ireland – where the burgers were manufactured – did not show the same level of attention it paid to its fruit.
Smith said the real issue in this case was that ABP Foods had used an unapproved supplier in Poland which had supplied the horsemeat.
“We approved seven different suppliers for Silvercrest. The fact is, for whatever reason, they used a supplier we did not approve. If someone choses to step outside of that agreement it is impossible for us to test a supplier in Poland which we did not know about.”
Tesco announced before the meeting it had cancelled its contract with Silvercrest because of the "breach of trust".
It also pledged to introduce a DNA testing system to stop horse meat from again entering the food chain and to reassure customers.
Smith conceded that this technology had been “available for some time” but that it was a “daunting prospect” to adopt it on a company-wide scale.
“Each sample on a site is £400–£500, so you take a deep breath before doing this.”
Smith added that the cost would be “borne by Tesco” and not passed on to consumers or producers.
Earlier in the meeting the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency Catherine Brown said burgers containing horsemeat could have been on sale for up to a year.
Smith – and his counterpart at Iceland Trish Twohig – told the committee that this was a problem that the Polish authorities were investigating. But they suspected it was a case of there being a very high level of horse meat contamination on just one day.
Smith said he was not yet in a position to say how much the scandal had cost Tesco. But he reiterated the firm’s apology to customers and said it “took full responsibility” for all products with a Tesco logo on.
It is believed around 10M burgers were withdrawn from the market following the discovery by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of traces of horse and pig DNA in burgers sold by Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Dunnes Stores.