Meat processors in the UK and Ireland are facing calls for tighter regulation in the wake of the discovery of equine and porcine DNA in beef products. The company at the center of the storm has agreed to introduce voluntary DNA testing and a number of other measures to guarantee the origin of its meat supplies.

Pressure on processors can only be expected to increase when one considers the economic and reputational damage resulting from the contamination. 

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to condemn retailers, not processors, saying: “It is worth making the point that ultimately retailers have to be responsible for what they sell and where it comes from.”

Retailers will now be looking afresh at who their suppliers are and the checks and guarantees that these suppliers have in place. If found to be lacking, new measures will only be a matter of time.

In the wake of the contamination, almost GBP300 million (US$476 million) was wiped off the share value of Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, and thought to be the main stocker of burgers from the plant where contamination was found. 

The company was forced to issue an apology with group technical director, Tim Smith, saying: “The safety and quality of our food is of the highest importance to Tesco. We will not tolerate any compromise in the quality of the food we sell.” 

Tesco, and other supermarkets that sourced from the contaminated plant, as well as supermarkets that had not, withdrew stock from sale with a value running into millions. Retailers and the UK processor named in the investigation of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland were required to quickly provide information on where they had sourced their products to the UK’s Food Standards Agency.

Upsetting consumers, governments and major retailers, is bound to have implications for the sector, be it processors of beef, horse, or poultry. And in the interconnected world in which we live, the implications are more than likely to spread beyond the shores of the UK and Ireland. 

What happened?  

The contamination came to light in the Republic of Ireland. The Food Standards Authority of Ireland conducted a small survey to investigate the authenticity of meat products on the Irish market. The survey was conducted as part of the Food Standards Authority of Ireland's monitoring and surveillance program on labeling of foods, specifically to check on the type of animal species in meat products, and the results were published on January 15. 

Nineteen salami products were analyzed and 31 beef meal products. While some salami products were found to be positive for beef DNA and some beef meal products contained porcine DNA, the issue was not deemed significant and not warranting further investigation. 

However, of 27 beef burger products analyzed, 87 percent were positive for porcine DNA and 37 percent for equine DNA. Most of the burgers positive for porcine DNA were not labeled as containing pork, which was found at very low levels, and its presence may have been due to processing different animal species in the same plant. None of the samples positive for equine DNA were labeled as containing horse meat. 

Of the 10 burger products that tested positive for horse DNA, all but one were at low levels. The quantification of the horse DNA in this one burger product gave an estimated amount of 29 percent horsemeat relative to the beef of the burger product. 

Where?

The burger products testing positive for equine DNA were produced at two plants in Ireland, Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods, and one plant in the UK, Dalepak Foods. Further test carried out at Silvercrest in mid-January indicated the continued presence of equine DNA. 

January 16 saw Silvercrest owner ABP Foods announce that it would introduce a new testing regime, including DNA testing, for all meat following the Food Standards Authority of Ireland findings. It added that it had never knowingly bought, handled or supplied equine meat products, and that it took the matter extremely seriously, apologizing for the concern that the issue had raised and suspending production at the Silvercrest plant.

ABP says that the affected beef products contained ingredients shipped from continental Europe, and that “only a small percentage of meat is currently procured from outside the UK.” 

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In a statement, the company said: “While extensive and thorough safety checks are conducted on all meat products, the industry does not routinely test meat products for species. As a result of this incident, we are implementing a new testing regime for products, which includes DNA analysis.” 

Rather than fresh meat, it is thought that the contamination occurred through the addition of high protein powders that were mixed with the meat used to make the beef burgers, and ABP is investigating suppliers in two countries. 

According to Silvercrest’s website: “It’s vital that you can confidently assure your end customers of the highest integrity of the products you offer them, and that you can guarantee the strictest standards of hygiene and highest levels of meat testing and traceability.” 

Someone’s guarantee, somewhere along the production chain, appears not to have held up.

Widespread concern

Back in the UK, following the Irish findings, the country’s Food Standards Authority initiated a sampling program to investigate content compared with a label’s listed ingredients across a number of products. 

David Heath, the UK Food Minister, suggested that there may have been “criminality” in the meat trade, while Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, commented: “Consumers who avoid pork for religious reasons will be upset they may have unwittingly eaten it, and eating horse is strongly culturally taboo in the UK. It is not illegal to sell horse meat, but it is illegal not to label it correctly.

“The UK is part of a global food supply chain,” she continued. “The food industry lobbies for a light-touch regulation system, free from government. Tracking, testing and tracing ingredients is expensive, but not testing will cost retailers, processors and British farmers and consumers much more.” 

Various trade organizations have offered their opinions on the issue. 

Director of the British Meat Processors Association, Stephen Rossides, said: “The Irish food safety authorities have stated that there are no human health risks involved in this episode. This is not a food safety issue.

“This episode – rare and unusual as it is – undermines consumer confidence and trust in the meat industry, and causes reputational damage to it. We must get to the bottom of what went wrong and why, and how such an incident can be prevented in the future.” 

The UK’s National Farmers Union has stated that comingling meat from various origins needs to stop, and that clearer labeling must be adopted detailing all ingredients in processed meat products. 

At the time of writing, where along the supply chain, mislabeling, or contamination originally occurred remained unclear. What was certain, however, is that meat processors are likely to come under closer scrutiny. With this, pressure will grow to institute tighter and more costly controls.