ONE of Nicola Sturgeon’s top aides has been accused of “jaw-dropping” muddled priorities after fretting about Scotch beef being sold under a Union Jack amid the pandemic.

Kate Higgins raised the issue with officials on the same day in September that the First Minister announced three deaths from coronavirus, then the biggest rise in more than two months.

Internal emails show Ms Higgins, a special adviser on rural economy and connectivity, called the labelling of Scotch meat as British by Marks & Spencer “disconcerting” and “not on”.

She also told a top official that if the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) quango was aware that Scotch beef was been branded and sold in Scotland as British beef “we have a problem”.

The intervention led to QMS making an inspection of M&S meats, calling the company, and undertaking to “monitor the Scotch brands”, even though one of the Government’s own officials had described the issue as not “particularly new”.

The Scottish Tories, who obtained the emails under freedom of information, said the way Ms Higgins pursued the issue of flags on meat was “petty, small and trivial” in the context.

They also urged Ms Sturgeon to say whether she backed "this total waste of time”.

The emails show Ms Higgins wrote to QMS complaining about M&S labels on September 8.

Under the subject “M and S and Scotbeef”, she wrote: “Selling Aberdeen Angus and other beef products in Scottish stores marked as British beef - is this non Scotch beef? Or have they stopped labelling it as Scotch beef even though it is. Because it’s not on really.”

The M&S British beef label uses a Union flag rather than a Saltire.

The same day she wrote to the Government’s head of food and drink, George Burgess, saying she didn’t think SNP ministers would support Scotch beef being labelled British.

“Wouldn’t it dissipate the Scotch beef brand? If QMS are aware that Scotch beef is being branded and sold in Scotland as British beef we have a problem."

Mr Burgess said the M&S British beef label allowed the firm to use meat from around the UK, rather than be restricted to Scotch beef and risk supply problems. 

He said: “Not sure this is particularly new. M&S don’t want to label beef as Scotch beef, and there is nothing that would require them to do so. 

“Of course, they couldn’t do it the other way round and label non-Scotch as Scotch – and that is probably why they want the flexibility rather than having all their labels printed with Scotch Beef and then running into supply problems.  

“Of course we’d want M&S to label Scotch Beef as Scotch Beef, and we and QMS can make the case about how it increases the value/prestige of the product both in Scottish stores and the rest of the UK, and point to what nimbler retailers like Lidl are able to do. 

“But if we were to insist that Scotch Beef can only be labelled as such, we run the risk that M&S go elsewhere for their supplies.”

Ms Higgins replied: “Ok thanks for explaining.”

A week later, a QMS official emailed Ms Higgins back after visiting M&S to “check the Scotch beef and lamb range” and then discussing it with the the store.

They wrote: “The M&S team have committed to review the fresh meat labelling as there were some products they identified that should be packaged as Scotch but were labelled as British.

“He [a person at M&S] thought this may be due to a hangover from the initial Covid panic buying period when much of the range was labelled as British to ensure maximum volumes were processed. 

“I have agreed to review the in-store range in the coming weeks to monitor the Scotch brands and report back to M&S.

“M&S reiterated their support for Scottish farmers and processors, stating [an undisclosed proportion] of the UK sourcing on beef and lamb comes from Scotland.”

Ms Higgins called it a “great outcome”, telling QMS: “The reason I raised it was because I know how committed M and S are to Scottish farm produce and sourcing and to then see it all labelled as British in a Scottish store was disconcerting. Thanks for following up.” 

Tory MSP Oliver Mundell said: “In the middle of a pandemic, it’s jaw-dropping that a key SNP Government adviser is furiously investigating how the Union flag ended up on a packet of meat.

“It’s an embarrassing reveal of the priorities of the SNP government. The big issue facing Scotland today is not the labelling of beef in Marks & Spencer.

“We are fighting a pandemic and 100,000 jobs are at risk. What will the Scottish public make of one of the First Minister’s key advisers complaining about flags on meat?

“I’m incredibly proud of Scottish produce but this is petty, small and trivial. The First Minister should explain if her government endorses this total waste of time.”

A spokesperson for Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing:“Scotch Beef is an iconic product which enjoys protected named status, which should always be safeguarded and promoted – particularly during the pandemic, which has hit our food and drink sector hard.  

“The Scottish Government makes no apologies for promoting our world class produce at a time when it is under threat like never before due to the reckless Brexit policies pursued by the Tories – who have disgracefully just voted to water down food standards – and championed by the likes of Oliver Mundell.”