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Horse meat scandal panel set up

An expert group has been set up by the Scottish Government to consider what can be learned from the recent horse meat scandal.

The group was established as a consultation is launched on the responsibilities and functions of a new independent food safety body, Public Health Minister Michael Matheson said.

He made the announcement as he updated Holyrood on progress made into uncovering the extent of the horse meat scandal in Scotland.

Local authorities were asked to withhold use of all frozen beef products pending further investigation after a frozen burger supplied to Cumbernauld High School in North Lanarkshire was found to contain horse DNA last week.

Mr Matheson told MSPs that by the end of the day all but one inspection of premises manufacturing meat products would be completed, with no evidence to date of horse meat food fraud discovered.

A group led by former chief vet Professor Jim Scudamore will consider any lessons learned from the scandal before the establishment of the food safety body, Mr Matheson said.

The group will include representatives from consumer protection, the meat industry, food retail and enforcement. It has been asked to recommend improvements in the food safety regime that can be made quickly, and will report before summer recess.

"We have the opportunity to learn from the present situation. The expert group I have announced today will identify any lessons we have learned from this horse meat scandal so that we can improve the food safety and standards regime in the future," Mr Matheson said.

A 12-week consultation on the new safety body has been launched.

The body, announced in June last year, will cover food safety and standards, nutrition, labelling and meat inspection following the UK Government's decision to reduce the scope of the UK-wide Food Standards Agency.

Mr Matheson said: "The scandal has made clear that a single independent public body should have clear responsibility for all aspects of food safety and standards. Our vision for Scotland's new food body is that its primary focus will be consumer protection. It will make sure food in Scotland is safe to eat and it will improve the diet and nutrition of the people of Scotland.

"The Government has considered carefully the implications of the horse meat scandal as part of the development of this consultation. Creating a new body and passing legislation takes time. People in Scotland rightly want to see improvements now."

Mr Matheson said a second expert group, to be led by Scotland Food and Drink chairman Ray Jones, has also been set up by Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead.

This will explore traceability, provenance and assurance associated with primary red meat production, and will also provide recommendations to Parliament before the summer recess.

Labour's Richard Simpson welcomed the establishment of a new body separate from Government and from the food industry.

But he questioned why it took so long to bring forward a consultation on the body, given that its establishment was recommended in a report published in April last year, and that Mr Matheson stated in June that it would be taken forward.

The minister's statement last year "only now led to the consultation for another 12 weeks, and two expert groups", Mr Simpson said.

"One is left with the firm impression that action is only now occurring with a great deal more speed because of the fact we have a crisis. Can the minister guarantee that the public can have confidence in the intervening period (before the new body is established)?"

Mr Matheson said: "I think the public can have great confidence in the way the Food Standards Agency in Scotland have performed over the last couple of weeks in relation to the horse meat scandal, and they can continue to have confidence as we move towards creating the new body. That is why we should take our time to do that in a managed way."

Conservative MSP Nanette Milne welcomed the expert group to learn from the scandal.

In order "to avoid this episode happening again, and in terms of food safety, we have to share the outcomes of group's findings with all the nations affected by the scandal", she said.

Green MSP Alison Johnstone said: "Three years after changes to the UK-wide FSA, we're finally seeing the Scottish Government getting to grips with the need to create a joined-up food agency with a wide remit and real powers.

"Today I suggested to ministers that the experts they seek advice from include organisations like Nourish, Fife Diet and the Federation of Small Businesses.

"There is a danger we continue to allow our food supplies to be controlled by supermarkets and big business whose traditional focus has been profit rather than nutrition or provenance."

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