European leaders agreed to the testing plan, which EU countries can extend for a further two months, in a bid to determine the sequence of events which led to the horsemeat scandal. The Commission expects the first results by 15 April.
Tests will also check horsemeat for potentially harmful drug residues, after six horses slaughtered in the United Kingdom tested positive for the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, or bute, which EU law bans from human consumption.
“I believe that only the strictest and most complete transparency can begin to repair the damage done to the consumer's confidence”, EU consumer and food safety commissioner Tonio Borg said at a hearing on the scandal in the Europe Parliament on Thursday (28 February).
EU law ‘not at fault’
Borg told EU lawmakers that despite the “irrational” reactions to the horsemeat scandal, the EU has one of the best food safety systems in the world.
The commissioner said the EU reacted immediately to the discovery of the mislabeled beef products and further legislation would not prevent all cases of fraud in the future.
“It is easy to jump to conclusion that the legislative system is at fault, but the reporting was immediate”, he said. “So the legislation is sound.”
Borg said the EU’s rapid alert system for food safety was to thank for the fast reaction to the crisis, with the first reported discoveries in Ireland releasing a chain of new tests and discoveries throughout Europe.
“The moment there were issues in Ireland and the UK it was immediately transmitted to the member states. All examples were reported immediately”, he said.
The European Commission is considering a proposal to review the rules on official controls across the food chain. The new regulation would require EU countries to impose financial penalties for intentional violations of food-chain rules, whether there is a health-risk or not “at a level which offsets the financial gain sought through the violation.”
However, a number of MEPs questioned Borg’s response to the crisis, calling for more stringent controls to ward against future fraud.
British Labour MEP Linda McAvan, a member of the environment, health and food safety committee, expressed dissatisfaction with the EU’s announcement of further random inspections and one month of testing, saying it did not go far enough.
“How many random inspections? How systematic? How many member states are cutting back [during the crisis]?”, she asked the Commissioner.
“It seems to me that we don't know now for how long people have been mislead with mislabeled horse meat, because it was just picked up in a random test. And you are going to test for a month; we don't know what's going to happen after that month; how can we know it won't happen again if we don't have a new system for testing in place by member states? There is a sort of idea that nothing is wrong with the system, but I don't think that's the view of many consumers”.