The government will begin paying compensation to those who were made poorer as a result of food scandals such as horsemeat.
Charities and MPs have criticised ministers for not taking action on the food trade for years after widespread fraud was uncovered at the Co-op, Tesco and Aldi. Customers have been left stunned by the revelations, with increasing numbers now calling for compensation.
The revelation that ministers would compensate customers who have bought chicken within the last 10 years will be welcomed by shoppers who have been forced to pay hundreds of pounds more for their chicken meal than they expected. The sums have also come as a shock to MPs, who are worried that years of warnings by the public against eating horsemeat may have driven many consumers to the wall.
“A substantial number of my constituents told me today that they no longer eat chicken because they have become so fed up of having to pay such high prices,” said Rosie Cooper, shadow food and rural affairs secretary. “That in turn leads to a lack of confidence about whether the eggs in their morning porridge or the eggs in their salad are organic or not.”
If meat has not been certified as free-range, it can be assumed that it is highly processed. Cooper said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should be taking swift action to resolve the lack of confidence.
“We also need to know whether a lot of these problems have been caused by the on-going ban on horsemeat imports following the eating scandal,” she said. “A lot of people are now assuming that the recipe for their lunch has been tampered with.”
After the horsemeat scandal, the Department for Food, Rural Affairs and the Regions (Defra) commissioned three firms to test samples of meat from different species bought from supermarkets in order to determine whether the meat had been adulterated with either animal by-products or horsemeat. The results found all samples contained horsemeat or by-products, although the presence of the horsemeat in the other products remained low.
One of the three sets of findings said: “Based on the information presented, and with the reliance given to credibility of standards data provided by the industry and the Department, it is highly likely that there has been the substitution of horsemeat in raw meat products by animal by-products … There is currently no agreement among industry and government as to the trustworthiness of these sampling techniques, nor is there agreement as to the credibility of current industry and labelling mechanisms.”
Further tests conducted by the British Horseracing Authority identified horse DNA in the production of plain meat samples.
In January, the Department of Food appointed Dr Nicholas Bond, a veterinary pathologist from the King’s College London Institute of Food Research, to review the relevant food regulations to see if further changes are necessary.
Christine Loxley, animal health policy manager at the Animal Aid campaign group, said: “At Animal Aid we are dismayed that the government has taken so long to act with a compensation scheme for consumers when food recalls are made.”
“It also demonstrates an inadequate government response to the horsemeat scandal when it emerged that labelling or testing was at fault and they ignored the warning signs,” she said.
Ministers said they would not just compensate those who have bought contaminated meat and bemoaned the actions of retailers and speculators who have made customers take meals of cheaper chicken, especially in burger meals. Officials said a payment scheme to reward customers would be up and running in six months.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has already backed a compensation scheme for farmers for any additional income they suffer because their product has been passed off as organic.
A spokesperson for Defra said: “This is not about rewarding fraudsters or speculators. It is about providing support to people and helping them to make the best informed food choices by ensuring they understand the value of meat, that standardisation is upheld and that there is a strict market discipline. We are looking at all possible avenues to help consumers make the best possible food choices. What we have been talking to retailers and brands about is how we can help them voluntarily promote food safety and improve transparency around where the meat comes from.”