Scottish food agency rejects claims of beef 'cover-up'

Scotland's beef industry and food regulator have been caught in the middle of a meat scandal hoo-ha amid claims the sector was importing beef from outside the country and mislabelling it as Scottish.

The regulator has since been accused of covering up food fraud after rejecting the claims had sparked an investigation.

The regulator denies a cover up and any wider wrongdoing within the beef industry, although it has confirmed allegations of beef mislabelling have been made.

The saga began when the intelligence manager for Food Standards Scotland (FSS), Duncan Smith, was reported in the press as saying that Scottish meat processors were allegedly importing beef from England, Ireland and "all over Europe" and labelling it as Scottish in order to boost profits.

Scottish beef, renowned for its quality, can attract price tags 6 per cent higher than non-Scottish beef, making it a potential target for food fraud.

"Unfortunately what the public is getting sold is inferior quality beef and hasn't come from farm assured farms and isn't the same quality as they expect to get for the price," Smith told The Courier.

He added: "We're aware of several places in Scotland where it's happening. On the face of it they're bona fide plants but clearly if they're willing to take in inferior meat and then put it out as something else there's clearly concerns over the integrity of that plant. No one's saying there's a risk to the consumer but they're getting duped as to what they're buying."

Smith said he was investigating the reports of mislabelled beef and called for whistleblowers.

But in a dramatic turn of events, the FSS, which was set up in the wake of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, issued a statement calling the published interview with Smith inaccurate and "sensationalist" and stated "there is no current investigation into the Scottish beef industry and no suggestion of any wrongdoing".

The statement went on to say that the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit regularly received claims alleging food fraud but that such claims were carefully considered to establish whether an investigation was warranted as such allegations of fraud could be unfounded.

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) also put pay to the idea that an investigation was ongoing. "SAMW can confirm that we have not been asked by the crime unit to respond to any current questions. In addition, not even one of SAMW's member companies has reported being approached by the crime unit to respond to any questions on this issue."

SAMW reiterated that most allegations of food fraud were generally unfounded and that many were based on an anti-meat agenda rather than facts or evidence.

However, critics have now accused the FSS of a cover up.

Food journalist Joanna Blythman was particularly scathing. "FSS' haste to deny the very existence of its investigation and promptly play down any suggestion of wrongdoing suggests that political and/or meat industry pressure has been brought to bear on FSS to slam a lid on the investigation lest it damage the Scotch beef brand."

She also claimed the FSS was confusing its role as a public watchdog with protecting the commercial interests of Scotland's food and drinks industries. Other commentators also claimed the watchdog's independence had been called into question.

Meanwhile, the fiasco caught the attention of politicians who sought clarity over the contradictory reports. "Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from, and this is vitally important to both the domestic and export markets for our world-renowned Scottish meat industry," Scottish Greens environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell MSP said when lodging questions in the Scottish Parliament.

In response, FSS chief executive Geoff Ogle said: "Any suggestion of a cover up is just wrong."

He has confirmed that beef mislabelling allegations had been made and that they were being assessed as to whether a formal investigation would be launched. "The fact that we have information and are looking into it does not constitute an investigation," he said.

He described the situation as a "misunderstanding", and apologised for any confusion and lack of clarity.

Industry leaders have welcomed the FSS' response and have stated that they would co-operate fully should any formal investigation take place.

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