The two Northern Ireland companies caught up in the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal

Always keen to support home industries,  I often buy Finnebrogue Naked Bacon in my local west London supermarket, attracted by the catchy label, colourful packaging, its keen price and its claim to be processed without nitrites. Naked Bacon is a brand of Lynn’s Country Foods, one of two dynamic NI companies which paid Owen Paterson as a lobbyist. The other is the pharma company Randox based at Crumlin, one of the biggest suppliers of Covid test kits in the UK, processing about 50,000 travel tests a day.

During his time as NI Secretary from 2010 to 2012, Paterson had been strong supporter of NI business, advocating for instance the now defunct cause of a lower corporation tax for the province.  After leaving government in 2014, he was one of few former ministers who continued his interest in NI in the Commons even as a prominent Brexiteer. In addition Paterson has been paid £12,000 a year by Lynn’s Country Foods, to be a consultant.  The way he combined the two roles was to be his downfall this week

The Guardian has tracked his lobbying activities for the past two years.

He assisted the firm in a sustained lobbying campaign that lasted more than a year. He attended five meetings with the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which is responsible for food safety. Three of the meetings were with Heather Hancock, the FSA’s chair.

The firm sells Finnebrogue Naked bacon, which it markets as a healthy alternative to traditional bacon. Its product is processed without the nitrite preservatives in most bacon that have been linked to cancer.

Instead, the firm uses another additive mix derived from fruits, spices and ascorbic acid. Its original labels said the bacon was made without E numbers, but the FSA said the ascorbic acid needed to be declared as an E number and the claim removed. Over many months, Lynn’s and Paterson sought to persuade the FSA that it did not.

The dispute appears to have ended in December 2018, when Lynn’s agreed to declare on the label of Finnebrogue Naked bacon that its product contained an additive.

Paterson also lobbied the FSA on behalf of Randox, which has paid him since 2015.

In 2016, he and Randox met Hancock, and the company suggested that antibiotic residues had been found in milk sold in supermarkets. Randox said it had developed a technique that could detect antibiotic residues in milk, and suggested the FSA adopt it for widespread testing.

At a meeting with Paterson last December, Hancock “explained yet again” to him that her agency did not have official responsibility for deciding how milk should be monitored.

An FSA memo said that in response to Randox’s suggestion the agency had collected samples of milk, but found little of concern.

.In 2017, Randox doubled its fee to Paterson to nearly £100,000 a year. Randox said: “It is a matter of public record that Owen Paterson has worked for Randox Laboratories Ltd since August 2015.”

In today’s Guardian, Greg Wood has raised the issue of Randox’s sponsorship of the Grand National. It is of course run at Aintree where Paterson’s wife Rose was the chair at the time of her tragic death last year

Randox’s association with the Grand National will, as things stand, be maintained at least until 2026. It will be an annual reminder of the lobbying scandal, which could lead to concerns, for Aintree and racing as a whole, about the extent to which the National’s image might suffer as a result. That, in turn, may also raise difficult and very sensitive questions about the process which led to Randox’s initial sponsorship contract being signed in March 2016.

Rose Paterson, Owen Paterson’s wife, was the chair of Aintree racecourse from 2014 until she took her own life on 24 June 2020. Within racing, she was both hugely popular and greatly respected for her dedication and diligence in a key role, and the grief and sense of loss throughout the sport following her death was deep and heartfelt.

In early 2016, Paterson was inevitably involved in the search for a new National sponsor after Halewood, the Liverpool-based drinks firm, decided it would not extend its contract via the Crabbie’s brand. The search ended in March 2016, when Randox – a company that had previously had a very low profile, both inside and outside racing – signed a five-year sponsorship deal.

Owen Paterson started work as a paid consultant for Randox seven months earlier, in August 2015.

The extent, if any, to which his involvement with Randox was a factor in Aintree’s choice of a new sponsor for the Grand National is unknown, and likely to remain so. But the events of recent days also focus attention on the decision by JCR to renew the contract earlier this year, when the parliamentary commissioner for standards had been investigating reports of Paterson’s lobbying activity on behalf of Randox since October 2019.

There is no suggestion that either Randox or Lynn’s Country Foods has done anything wrong.

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Photo: UK Parliament portrait