Horse burger scandal: Meat industry under pressure to change

DNA testing to ensure meat is what it says on the label is set to become more commonplace in the UK in the wake of the ‘horseburger’ scandal.

ABP, the meat processor at the centre of the furore, has already announced it is implementing a new testing regime for meat products which will include DNA analysis.

Red meat levy board EBLEX has announced that it is ‘looking at a pilot project of random DNA testing to beef and lamb’ produced under its Quality Standard Mark (QSM).

However, despite calls for DNA testing to be made compulsory, led by Shadow Defra Secretary Mary Creagh, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has indicated it does not see the need for routine DNA testing.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has warned against a ‘knee jerk reaction’ in the form of new requirements that could see unwarranted additional costs imposed on the industry.

The discovery of horse DNA in burgers sold by major retailers in the UK and Ireland is being blamed on imports of ingredients, such as beef powder, which are added to meat to make value burgers in UK and Irish processing plants.

The scandal has led to calls from the UK livestock sector for clearer labelling of meat products and for an end to the practice of ‘co-mingling’ of imported ingredients with domestic meat.

NFU President Peter Kendall said the events of the past few days have ‘severely undermined confidence in the UK food industry’.

“Farmers are rightly angry that the integrity of stringent UK-farmed products is being compromised by using cheaper imported alternatives which, evidence suggests, do not meet the robust traceability systems we have in the UK,” he said.

“We need to move this debate on to find lasting solutions by putting an end to co-mingled products which mix UK meat with imported meat, as well as clearer labelling of all ingredients in products to ensure consumers can make a conscious buying decision.”

He also urged all retailers to ‘engage better with Red Tractor assurance’ and increase the use of the logo on pack to ensure the meat they sell is British and fully traceable.  

His views were echoed by EBLEX sector director Nick Allen, who said: “Co-mingling of meats of different country of origin has been repeatedly raised by consumers as a concern in recent years.”

He said EBLEX also ‘support calls for clear, simple labelling and welcome a debate on the issue’. “While it is accepted that lower value meat products are unlikely to contain as high a proportion of beef than at the quality end of the market, the contents still need to be clearly labelled on the packet.”

Urging consumers to seek out Red Tractor and QMS assurance on meat packs, Mr Allen said: “Our own scheme is independently audited and remains robust. However, in the light of this incident coming to light, we are looking at a pilot project of random DNA testing to beef and lamb produced under our scheme as an additional failsafe.”

Mr Rossides said it was vital that no rush decisions are taken on issues like banning no-mingling and enforcing DNA testing.

“It will be a very big mistake to have a knee jerk reaction that says we must conduct extra DNA tests. That may be entirely disproportionate to food safety and it will be extremely costly,” he said.

He pointed is out that the UK is not self-sufficient in beef and therefore needs imports to fulfil demand and that the meat supply chain ‘can be quite complicated’.

“I don’t think one can make any prescription that things should always be British. There is not a blanket solution to say that nothing can be co-mingled. The answer is for everyone in the supply chain, including farmers, to ensure what you produce is safe, is labelled correctly and traceable so you where it comes from,” he said.

“We need to be very careful about being drawn into additional enforcement or processing procedures because the costs will be absorbed by the supply chain. First we need to find out exactly what happened here, establish the facts, count to 10 and consider soberly as an industry where we go.”

A Defra spokesman said: “The Food Standards Agency leads on all testing and its position is that DNA testing of authenticity is a specialised test and not carried out on a routine basis.”

Readers' comments (9)

  • Would someone explain what , fsa, mhs , and all the trading standards do other than draw a weeks wage. O yes forgot chase farmers

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  • The most annoying part is, when the company who is responsible gets sorted it probably won't come out of anyones wages if we as farmers make a mistake we get hammered, straight out of our own pockets!

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  • I have no problem in eating any type of meat as I assume most carnivores would agree. The only problem I see here is that if it says beef then I expect to be buying beef. If it says badger then I expect badger :((~~~
    If people insist on buying from supermarkets , then people should insist on British meat. A butcher hopefully can tell the difference between a carcass of beef and a carcass of horse, if they don't then they should be sacked.

    2ladybugs

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  • I think the offending meat arrives as mince rather than carcases 2ladybugs. Obviously the people selling the end products are not employing the same standards of inspection and traceability that they impose on their UK farm suppliers. Do I detect a whiff of hypocrisy?

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  • Fsa, mhs, trading standards etc are almost non existent now due to cutbacks. That said if farmers, processors and retailers stuck to the rules and maintained their moral obligations then all these agencies could pack up and go home.

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  • @7.37pm

    Mince would be the polite name for it..........

    As I said, people should insist on British meat. If......and that is a big if I buy any meat from a supermarket, it is a supermarket where butchers cut up carcasses and they can tell me what farm it came from.

    2ladybugs

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  • Why should we put up with DEFRA, FSA and the DTI ?

    These "beef burgers" have broken the weights and measures act and the trade descriptions act.

    From the Guardian:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/18/horse-dna-safety-beef

    "Industry insiders have told the Guardian they believe that an ingredient called "drind", dehydrated rind or skin, may be at the heart of the scandal. It is commonly used to bulk up cheap meat products.

    Additives made from boiled hide or offcuts of carcasses are typically used to bind in added fat and water and increase the protein levels of economy beef products that have a low meat content. These may legally be identified simply as "seasoning" on the label."

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  • Anonymous | 19 January 2013 8:27 pm
    If everyone followed the rules we would not need a Police Force, but unfortunately there are always some who spoil it for the majority.

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  • On the ABP website there is a statement about how they believe they have "established the source of the contaminated material to one of these two suppliers." (29% is more than contamination isn’t it??)
    4 questions 1) Will heads roll at the top of these blighted firms and quangos? 2) Will the NFU / NBA look to take legal action against these offenders for losses incurred? 3)Just why should we jump through all these hoops to give the consumers confidence with the Farm Assurance protocols when they are so obviously held in such low regard by those who demand them from us? (sow stalls battery cages etc) 4) I am off to order some replacement tags for some cattle going on Wednesday can we be assured that the horses in question were double tagged?
    I think we all know the answers don’t we?

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