The Food Supply Chain is as Secure as its Weakest Link

The survey was carried out as part of the FSAI’s routine monitoring and surveillance programme on labelling of foods. DNA profiling was used to test for the presence of DNA from pigs, cattle and horses in beef meals, beef burgers and salamis.

Equine DNA was identified in 10 of the 27 samples of burger products that were sampled. Ten production plants, both in the UK and Ireland were sampled and three tested positive (two in Ireland, one in the UK). Trace or very low levels of equine DNA were found in 9 of the 10 positive samples ranging from 0.3 per cent to levels too low to be quantified. In one of the 10 burgers (Tesco Everyday Value Burger), horse meat accounted for an astonishing 29% relative to the beef content of the burger products. Own-brand burgers on sale in Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Aldi, and Iceland were all found to contain equine DNA.

The meats came from two processing plants in Ireland, Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods, as well as the Dalepak Hambleton plant in the UK. The FSAI has reiterated that the beef burger products which were found to contain horse DNA do not pose any food safety risk for consumers. As a result the FSAI was not obligated to report their findings to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, which is the normal for international food safety incidents.

The findings of the report raise concerns about the traceability of meat ingredients. The source of this constituent is unclear and on-going investigations are being undertaken by the FSAI, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the food businesses involved. A full investigation is underway, with a focus on a powdered beef-protein additive from suppliers in Spain and the Netherlands. This additive is added to beef to bulk up cheaper burgers at the low end of the market. This sort of story shouldn’t come as a shock, since it’s known that meat processing plants and slaughterhouses handle all kinds of meat and cross-contamination is common. The plants in question do not handle horse meat products, therefore cross contamination along the food ingredient supply chain is highly likely to be the root cause of this outbreak.Retailers voluntarily removed all implicated batches of the beef burgers as they view this as a quality issue. ABP Food Group, who owns two of the plants where products containing horse DNA were processed, has confirmed that more than 10 million burgers which have been withdrawn from supermarkets will be destroyed. Burger King has confirmed that is it no longer sourcing burgers from the ABP’s Silvercrest plant that are at the centre of the horse meat scandal. Burger King has confirmed that it has switched to an alternative approved supplier for its Irish and British restaurants.

None of the samples positive for equine DNA were labelled as containing horse meat. Consumers have the right to know exactly what is in their food, even though in this case there is the presence of horse meat in itself does not represent a food safety risk and is routinely consumed in the EU.

Horse meat should not have been found in burgers and adequate quality control checks should have been in place to ensure that all ingredients were tested by the factories in question before being used. Should we think more about what precisely goes into our food and more importantly where does the food industry draw the line? Imposing traceability and quality assurance regimes at farm level is a waste of time unless the ingredients and processes used by meat factories are subjected to equal rigorous inspections and controls.

The food chain is only as secure as its weakest link. Among the lines of inquiry are that different types of meat additives were mixed up either deliberately or in error, or that there had been an issue over labelling. Regardless of the findings of how horsemeat DNA entered the beef products, consumer trust has been damaged as a result of this breach in the food quality standards. As the crisis continues to unfold, two questions remain to be answered: How did an Irish beef burger end up with 29% of the content being horse meat? And should there be a change in traceability and quality assurance regimes to include ingredients added by processors? The unfortunate results of this recent controversy is that damage has been done to processed beef sales in Ireland and in the UK and unnecessary food wastage has occurred of more than 10 million burgers which were destroyed.

References:
FSAI FAQs: Horse and Pork DNA in Meat Products

Written by Cronan McNamara on January 28 2013

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