Last month’s revelation that anything up to 29% of the meat in some economy beefburgers is horsemeat was great news for everyone who likes a good joke. Of course you don’t know what goes into them – but everyone does know they can give you the trots.
What is not so funny is why the UK Food Standards Agency and DEFRA had to rely on the Irish authorities to point out what everyone knew all along – you get what you pay for. DNA-testing of meat products is normal practice at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland because their economy is so dependent on beef product exports. The Irish farming community is also very quick to act when quality issues are at stake, whether it’s growth hormones in beef from Brazil or the risk of importing Foot & Mouth disease.
ABP Food Group has closed down production at their subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire.
The Irish FSA identified the problem back in November and promptly told Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl. Since then their main supplier, ABP Food Group has closed down production at their subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire. Liffey Foods, another Irish Company was also warned-off well before the UK’s ten biggest food retailers took action. In the UK only Waitrose and Marks & Spencer remain unaffected as they have no connection with ABP.
The problem in the UK is not the producer or retailer but the poor food safety legislation which allowed this situation to arise.
Anne McIntosh MP, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Environment Select Committee pronounced that this news was ‘Stunning… considering all the care that is taken in this country, and all the efforts with food labelling’ – and rather missed the point. The problem in the UK is not the producer or retailer but the poor food safety legislation which allowed this situation to arise.
The UK Food Standards Agency was established in 2001 in the wake of the ‘Mad Cow’ scandal specifically to protect consumers by ensuring nothing nasty like BSE-infected beef enters the food chain. It was also made responsible for ensuring the accurate labelling of foodstuffs, but after losing a battle to introduce colour-coded warnings about salt and fat content in ready-meals it was accused of caving-in to pressure from retailers.
Since then it has had a shake-up but still continues to fall at the first fence. It’s food policy division seems incapable of outwitting producers to ensure accurate labelling and has never insisted on DNA-testing of ingredients. Instead, day-to-day enforcement is delegated to Council Trading Standards departments who struggle within a framework of poor legislation and evasive labelling by retailers.
Suggesting a 0.5% reduction in saturated fat in biscuits would save the NHS £500 million per year.
But what it is good at is issuing confusing advice about eating too much red meat or suggesting a 0.5% reduction in saturated fat in biscuits would save the NHS £500 million per year. When pressed on TV interview to explain the causal link between red meat and bowel cancer the FSA spokesperson eventually admitted: ‘We don’t know why’.
There is the threat of prosecution for retailers who fail to accurately declare the ingredients but not their place of origin or whether they have been DNA-tested.
Food labelling legislation remains vague, to put it mildly. It allows a Lincolnshire Sausage containing absolutely no British ingredients to be legitimately labelled as ‘Produced in Britain’ provided the ingredients are processed here. It also remains perfectly lawful for food producers to import horsemeat from Poland (as seems to have happened in this instance) before processing it into economy burgers. There is the threat of prosecution for retailers who fail to accurately declare the ingredients but not their place of origin or whether they have been DNA-tested. Thanks to refrigerated shipping a beef steer may be raised in Botswana before being exported to Spain for butchering and the trimmings sent to Yorkshire to be combined with other ingredients into an economy burger. Standard procedure means imports are tested for bacteria and heavy metals but not for DNA content, so if someone at the wholesaler slips a side of horsemeat into the trimmings who’s to know?
Since 2006 EU regulation 178/2002 requires all EU food businesses to establish traceability throughout the food chain so having been handed a PR disaster by their suppliers I imagine Tesco must be a bit hacked-off with ABP Food Group. I wouldn’t give decent odds on the future career prospects of the Polish buyer who didn’t know the difference between Kon and Wolowina. Thankfully the meat appears to have been processed hygienically so there is no risk to public health and the retailers will probably just get a slap on the wrist for mis-labelling the ingredients. More importantly the FSA may now introduce DNA-testing as a matter of course rather than relying on the Irish to blow the whistle.
Of course abroad they’ve got far fewer scruples about eating horsemeat or anything with four legs, unless it’s a table. You can still find a Boucherie Chevaline in large French towns, often advertised by a nice model of a horse over the shopfront. I’m told horsemeat is very similar to beef and less gamey than pheasant but personally I’m iffy about eating something which may have been someone’s pet. But many French shoppers prefer My Lidl Pony.
Of course there are two ways round this problem. Go out and kill your meat yourself or buy your meat and burgers from a Market butcher. If he’s got a nice big red face that’s a good sign, and better still if he’s got lots of ‘Best in Show’ rosettes and certificates decorating his stall. He’ll know all about traceability and quality and still be competitively-priced.
And remember – if you like economy burgers don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning with a bit between your teeth.