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.”