THE horsemeat scandal is changing Britain's eating habits, with consumers buying less meat and those who do choosing to shop at the local butcher's rather than supermarkets, according to a new poll.
Owen Paterson, the UK Environment Secretary, and Richard Lochhead, the Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary, meet food industry leaders in London this afternoon to get an update on test results and discuss what more can be done to restore the public's trust in UK meat.
Mr Paterson yesterday announced he had asked the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to investigate claims UK Government ministers were warned in 2011 horsemeat was illegally entering the human food chain.
According to the online poll of 2257 adults carried out at the end of last week by Consumer Intelligence, independent market researchers, 24% of adults say they will now buy less processed meat, 21% have already started buying less meat generally, 67% say they trust food labels less and 62% are now more likely to use their local independent butchers.
"Our findings show that this scandal has really hit consumers hard, be it through having to change their shopping habits or altering the fundamentals of their diet," said David Black of Consumer Intelligence.
"There will be a massive and costly fight by the big brands to regain consumer trust; all to the benefit of the friendly neighbourhood butcher and their local economy," he added.
Malcolm Walker, the boss of Iceland, insisted British supermarkets had a "fantastic reputation" for food safety and said: "If we're going to blame somebody, let's start with local authorities because there's a whole side to this industry which is invisible, that's the catering industry; schools, hospitals. It's massive business for cheap food and local authorities award contracts based purely on one thing: price."
However, the Local Government Association in London said Mr Walker was "a little confused".
A spokesman said: "The law is 100% clear that it is the responsibility of the manufacturer, supplier and retailer to make sure the product they sell us is what they say it is.
"There has been a major supply chain failure; that's not the fault of consumers, councils or hospitals. The companies that supply our food need to take responsibility and focus on getting their house in order."
Mark Price, chief executive of upmarket retailer Waitrose, warned there would be a public cost for the horsemeat scandal –higher food prices. He said that in return for consumers being reassured their meat was safe, it could no longer be seen as "a cheap commodity".
Mr Paterson insisted that once the EU-wide testing was over he wanted to "have a proper look at the whole system".
He also made it clear the FSA would look at a claim Government ministers were warned about horsemeat in the food chain two years ago.
John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, now part of the agency, said a letter to former minister Sir Jim Paice on behalf of Britain's largest horsemeat exporter warned flesh with possible drug residue getting into food could blow up into a scandal, but it was ignored.
Sir Jim insisted he did not remember the warning, but added that if it was in the department and was not acted upon: "I would like to know why on earth I was not being told about it."