About 1% of U.K. Beef Products Have Horse Meat, Tests Show

About 1 percent of beef products tested in the U.K. contained horse meat, the U.K. Food Standards Agency said today as retailers and food makers joined forces in an attempt to regain consumer trust in meat products.

Of 2,501 test samples, 2,472 returned negative results, the food safety watchdog said today at a press conference in London. Twenty-nine products had more than 1 percent horse meat, the FSA said, including a number of multiple positive results on a single product. None of the samples contained phenylbutazone, a potentially harmful veterinary drug known as bute.

“The results show that the overwhelming majority of beef products in this country do not contain horse,” FSA Chief Executive Officer Catherine Brown said. “The examples we have had are totally unacceptable. But they are the exceptions.”

Retailers across Europe have withdrawn products such as frozen beef burgers, lasagnas and meat balls from their shelves when they were shown to contain horse DNA. The scandal has led regulators and policy makers across the region to put pressure on the industry to make the food chain less opaque.

European Union-wide tests for equine DNA in beef and bute in horse meat are to begin immediately, the EU said today.

School Dinners

Brown said the results of 900 further industry tests and 200 of its own probes are still being awaited and the FSA will give further updates on Feb. 22.

The first case of horse DNA in school dinners was also discovered, in cottage pies delivered to 47 schools in Lancashire, in north-west England, the BBC reported.

The chief executive officers of 11 food providers and retailers today published a joint letter setting out their resolve to restore consumer confidence “as quickly as possible.”

The CEOs, including Tesco Plc’s Philip Clarke, Asda Stores Ltd.’s Andy Clarke, Justin King from J Sainsbury Plc and Dalton Philips of William Morrison Supermarkets Plc, said in the letter that “fraudulent activity or even as alleged, an international criminal conspiracy” may be to blame for the horse-meat crisis.

Three men were arrested at two meat-processing plants shut down by the U.K. food-industry regulator over the sale of mislabeled horse meat, the police and FSA said yesterday. Brown said it’s “possible” there may be further arrests.

The FSA said earlier that computers and further evidence were seized today in Hull and London.

Retailers’ Responsibility

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has said retailers “bear a real responsibility,” as “at the end of the day they are putting products on their shelves.”

Sainsbury and Iceland Foods Ltd. said today that no horse meat has been found in their products, while Tesco said new test results on 149 products are all clear.

U.K. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said food companies must demonstrate to their customers they’ve taken the right steps to deal with the horse-meat scandal.

“Food businesses now have a lot of work to do,” Paterson said in a statement on his ministry’s website today. “They need to move quickly to complete these tests and they need to show their customers they’ve taken the right steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The signatories of the letter included Richard Cousins, CEO of contract-caterer Compass Group Plc, and Patrick Coveney, head of Greencore Group Plc, the Irish prepared-meals processor that said today it supplied beef bolognese sauce that was withdrawn by Asda after traces of horse DNA were found.

Greencore shares fell 9.5 percent to 92.5 pence in London, the biggest drop in more than 14 months, reducing the company’s market value to 363.8 million pounds ($565 million).

Supply Chain

Separately, Tesco’s Clarke said in a blog on the grocer’s website that he has ordered a review of the company’s “approach to the supply chain.” Tesco, which this month dropped one of its suppliers after the discovery of horse DNA in some products, will set a benchmark for the testing of products, the executive said, adding that new processes won’t mean more expensive food for customers.

Shares of Tesco and Sainsbury fell today, though “that may be due to the noise surrounding the horse meat issue” rather than “many concerns that it’s going to really hurt long-term business,” according to Andrew Gwynn, a food retail analyst at Exane BNP Paribas in London.

“Let’s not forget, it’s not a food safety issue yet and once the dust settles it may be good news in that people trade up to more expensive fresh meat,” Gwynn said.

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