By Jason Lewis, Investigations Editor
British officials ignored three official warnings that fraudulently labelled horse meat was in circulation in Europe and may have been passed off as beef.
The Europe wide confidential alerts were put out by the Italian and Danish food safety authorities as long ago as February last year - 11 months before horse meat was found in beef products on sale in British supermarkets.
The alerts now appears to be the first official evidence of fraud involving cheap horse meat being passed off as more expensive beef. But there is no evidence the warning was ever acted on by British food safety officials who dismissed the reports because the incidents did not involve the UK.
At the same time UK officials failed to notify their EU partners for up to nine months that horse meat destined for the tables of Europe had been exported from Britain containing “bute”, the veterinary drug which is banned from entering the food chain because it is a potential threat to human health.
The Sunday Telegraph can also disclose:
* How official ignored warnings from the Government’s own independent scientists that the “life threatening” drug “bute” was finding its way into meat exports.
* That senior officials from the food safety regulator lobbied for an end to daily inspections at meat cutting plants in favour of giving producers advanced warning of its visits.
* How senior officials from the Government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) accepted hospitality from some of the food companies at the centre of the horse meat scandal.
The new details underline how the FSA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) failed to act before the full scale of the horse meat scandal became apparent.
The Sunday Telegraph can reveal that the first warnings on horse meat fraud were sent to senior UK officials on February 1, February 15 and March 7 last year.
They warned of a “suspicion of fraud in relation to horse carcasses and horse meat” from Hungary and Denmark, some of which was processed in Italy.
Categorised in the EU database as “adulteration/fraud”, much of the meat is believed to have been seized but some is reported to have been distributed probably to Belgium, Denmark and France for human consumption.
The confidential alerts, seen by this newspaper, were emailed to a special mail box at the Food Standards Agency, to UK health officials, environmental health officers, customs officers at Britain’s ports and two senior Foreign Office representatives at the European Parliament.
Two of the horse meat fraud alerts, known as “information for follow up”, were a formal Europe-wide “notification of risk” about “a product that is or may be placed on the market”.
The third alert, known as “information for attention”, was designed to warn all European countries about a fraud involving horse meat after the illegally labelled goods were seized by officials in Italy.
The notifications, backed by European legislation, were sent via Europe’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) set up to alert EU countries to imminent threats to public health. The network is run by the European Commission and managed in the UK by the FSA.
Last night it was unclear what, if any action, was taken by the FSA or any other British food safety officials in response to the specific warning before routine tests by Irish authorities last month discovered horse meat in beefburgers sold in supermarket chains including Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer.
An FSA spokeswoman said it was aware of the earlier European warnings on horse meat fraud but that it had not been connected to the UK. She said: “The FSA is aware of these alerts through the RASFF system.
“The country entering the alert is required to give full details of where the product has been distributed. None of this meat entered the UK.”
At the same time, it can be disclosed, British officials have confirmed that they failed to notify their counterparts in France and Holland that horse meat exported from the UK contained phenylbutazone, known as bute, which is a risk to human health.
On one occasion it took Britain nine months to alert officials in Holland that chilled horse meat exported for food from the UK for Dutch consumers contained the banned substance.
FSA officials took a sample of horse meat in May 2012 but they only alerted the Dutch to the “unauthorised substance” in the meat early this month. The chilled meat is sold as “fresh” and is not stored for more than a few days, meaning the contaminated meat would almost certainly have been eaten.
The alerts are supposed to be urgent warnings. According to the European Commission RASFF “Alert notifications are sent when a food or feed presenting a serious health risk is on the market and when rapid action is required.”
It says it is up SFA and other British officials to identify the problem and take the relevant actions. It says: “The goal of the notification is to give all RASFF members the information to confirm whether the product in question is on their market, so that they can also take the necessary measures.”
In four other cases the FSA took between two and four months to alert French officials that samples of British chilled horse meat they had tested before it was exported for French consumption was also contaminated with the veterinary drug. Again it is unlikely, given the shelf life of chilled meat, that the contaminated product had not already been consumed.
Last night the FSA spokeswoman confirmed that five of the horses containing bute had ended up in the food chain. She said: “We are working with the French and Dutch authorities to identify where this meat was consumed.”
She said that in the passed tests for but had taken three weeks to complete and were done at the same time that the meat was exported. She added that since the end of January all British horse meat was being tested and cleared for human consumption before it was allowed to leave the UK.
A senior official from the Direction General de L’Alimentation, part of the French Ministry of Agriculture, told the Sunday Telegraph: “What you have to ask is whether this meat in which the phenylbutazone was allegedly found was then exported to France.
“Under normal circumstances, it would not have left the abattoir after being found to contain the phenylbutazone. If it was exported then this is not a health issue, it is fraud.
“In short. It should have been destroyed, if it wasn’t this is fraud. If meat arrives for human consumption from the UK here in France, we assume it is fit for human consumption. We don’t test it all over again.”
He added: “I don’t believe we should be pointing the finger at the food health authorities in France or in the UK. From experience when they know something they do something about it straight away and any doubt means precaution. It’s when they don’t know that is the problem.”
Britain exports between 8,000 and 9,000 horses for consumption in Europe every year. But until this month, when officials introduced new rules that meant all horse meat had to be tested for bute before it was exported, the FSA only tested a small per cent of the carcasses every year.
According to a report by Defra’s Veterinary Residues Committee last July only 68 horses were tested for bute before they were exported in the whole of 2011.The independent scientific advisory committee said it had “repeatedly expressed concern over residues of ‘bute’ entering the food chain.”
It warned bute had “potential for serious adverse effects in consumers” including the “rare but very serious, life threatening, condition” blood discrasia which is similar to leukaemia or haemophilia.
But its report warned that Defra’s “follow up investigations in recent years have found that some vets are still prescribing phenybutazone (bute) without...ensuring that the horse is subsequently signed out of the food chain.
“Phenylbutazone residues have also been found in horse that have changed owners prior to going to slaughter (which have not) been signed out of the food chain.
“Other residues have occurred because feeding containing “bute” intended for one horse has allegedly been eaten by another horse.”
The report revealed that in cases where bute was found in a horse which had not been declared unfit for consumption the owner and the vet have been “advised about food chain requirements”.
The Crown Prosecution Service said they believe there have been no prosecutions regarding fraudulent trading of horse, or any other meat. However it added that there are no central records of these sort of offences.