Horsemeat found in frozen beef products has destroyed the trust many people placed in their local supermarkets. Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters
Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, will be among ministers from across the EU pressing on Monday for speedier action on introducing country-of-origin labelling for processed beef and other meat products as they struggle to get a grip on the horsemeat scandal.
On Saturday the French president, François Hollande, joined the growing calls for more traceability at European level and critics have complained that the UK coalition government had been dragging its feet on the issue before the crisis began last month. Country of origin and slaughter for cattle must already be included on labels for fresh and frozen beef but the European commission is paving the way to extend that to other meats and ingredients in processed food. However, a report on implementing tougher rules is not expected until the end of the year. This month, the Commons environment, food and rural affairs select committee said UK ministers had been caught "flat-footed" by the scandal, which has been blamed on mislabelling and criminal fraud, and criticised them for having sought UK exemption from some EU rules.
This would allow minced meat sold in Britain to have a higher fat and collagen content than permitted in other EU member states and remove the requirement for loose meat products to declare the amount of meat they contained. "This is not the time for the government to be proposing reducing the labelling standards applied to British food", said the committee.
Glenis Willmott, Labour MEP for the East Midlands and the party's leader in the European parliament, said last week that in 2011 UK ministers had opposed plans backed by the parliament for more comprehensive country of origin labelling. This had forced MEPs "into a much weaker compromise" as the coalition tried "to kick the issue into the long grass".
She said: "It is interesting that Mr Paterson, one of the most Eurosceptic of ministers, is now advocating EU legislation as a solution to the current crisis. It is simply common sense that a problem in the meat supply chain … needs EU-wide measures to combat it. But it is precisely this kind of EU regulation that Eurosceptics deem 'red tape from Brussels'. In 2011 the UK government said my plans would be too difficult to put into practice because the meat supply chain was too complex. We have now seen what the complexities of the industry can hide."