Tough proposals to force food manufacturers to reveal where the meat in their products comes from have been shelved in a U-turn by ministers.
Despite vowing to improve transparency in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, the Coalition has quietly abandoned the plans following a sustained lobbying drive by the industry.
It means manufacturers will not be obliged to say where the meat in pies, lasagnes, pasta sauces, sandwiches and any other processed dish originates.
George Eustice has quietly lobbied against tighter regulations for processed meat in Europe after his department held a string of meetings with food manufacturers.
As a result, new rules coming into force this year have been significantly watered down – so they will not have to tell consumers where the meat has come from in hundreds of product lines.
This flies in the face of promises by David Cameron, who called for more rigorous food information while in opposition.
Consumer and farming groups – who have consistently called for clearer labelling – last night denounced the Government’s failure to protect British consumers.
Kath Dalmeny, of food campaign group Sustain, said: ‘This is outrageous, the Tory Government came in on the promise that they would do something about this. I think most people will be shocked to learn the Government is trying to stop country labelling for unprocessed meat, while saying the opposite in public.’
New regulations on clear labelling for fresh, unprocessed cuts of meat are to be introduced next April. Initially, it was proposed that all processed food containing meat should be labelled with its country of origin. But this requirement has now been removed after meat industry groups launched a sustained lobbying drive to influence British ministers.
Documents leaked to the Daily Mail reveal a series of meetings were held last year between industry figures and senior British civil servants – weeks before new regulations were discussed in Brussels.
Meat industry representatives were even asked to provide the Government with ‘case studies’ illustrating how burdensome new rules would be. One industry body has since boasted to members that it ‘persuaded the UK Minister to oppose mandatory labelling’.
Ministers in Defra, the department for food, argue that it would cost too much to force companies to comply with the tighter rules.
This contrasts with Mr Cameron’s views in opposition, when he said it was ‘completely wrong’ that consumers were not told whether or not the meat in products they were buying was British.
His party even launched an Honest Food campaign, pledging compulsory labels that would clearly list where it had come from.
The campaign was taken up again after the horsemeat scandal last year, in which equine flesh was found in supermarket burgers and ready-meals. At the time, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson proclaimed the EU should accelerate plans for clearly labelling the origin ‘of all processed meat’.
Yesterday Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, accused Defra of allowing big businesses to dictate policy. ‘Owen Paterson and his ministers are saying all the right things, but there is a gap between the rhetoric and what gets done. So who is pulling the strings?’
Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, added: ‘We have always been led to believe the Government was in favour of clear country of origin labelling on any meat in food, so I find this is very strange behaviour from our ministers.’ Labour farming spokesman Huw Irranca- Davies, said: ‘A year after the horsemeat scandal consumers rightly want to know what they are eating and where it has come from.’
Mr Eustice submitted formal documents to the European Commission in January, arguing that national labelling for all meat ingredients would place an unnecessary financial burden on business.
In an ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ submitted to the Commission, he wrote: ‘The Government view is that any extension of mandatory country of origin labelling could only be considered if it could be demonstrated that it was straightforward to operate, not burdensome to businesses and not trade-distorting.’
Mr Eustice’s intervention was hailed as a victory by lobbyists, including the British Meat Processors Association, one of the groups that had met his officials.
The trade body wrote in its annual report that it had ‘fought off potentially complicated and costly’ EU rules on country of origin labelling.
Emails leaked to the Mail show that Defra met with meat trade organisations several times in late 2013, shortly after proposals had been published by the European Commission.
New rules are to be introduced next April on labelling on fresh and unprocessed meat – but the rules will not apply to anything involving processed food.
The British Meat Processors Association said that independent research, commissioned by the European Commission, had concluded that labelling could be costly and the public would not be willing to pay for it.
A Defra spokesperson said: ‘The European Commission’s report made clear that new regulations on processed meat products would have no impact on food safety.
‘If the regulations had been brought in consumers could have faced huge increases in food prices.
‘Most processed food labelling provides country of origin voluntarily and we will continue to work with industry to ensure consumers are protected.’
THE PROMISES AND EMPTY WORDS
‘Food can be imported to Britain, processed here, and subsequently labelled in a way that suggests it’s genuinely British. That is completely wrong.’
DAVID CAMERON, JAN 2007
‘It’s time for a compulsory country of origin labelling scheme so people have proper information.’
TORY FARMING SPOKESMAN NICK HERBERT, FEB 2009
‘We will introduce honesty in food labelling.’
COALITION AGREEMENT, MAY 2010
‘Recommendations on labelling the origin of all processed meat should be accelerated.’
OWEN PATERSON AFTER HORSEMEAT SCANDAL, FEB 2013
‘Any extension of mandatory country of origin labelling could only be considered if it was straightforward to operate, not burdensome to businesses and not trade-distorting.’
FARMING MINISTER GEORGE EUSTICE, JAN 2014
We are concerned about the unnecessary financial burdens any proposal could place on businesses when we have best practice industry principles that cover the same issue.’
FARMING MINISTER GEORGE EUSTICE, FEB 2014