IT WAS the food scandal that launched a thousand puns. Revelations that beefburgers in the “value” ranges of several leading supermarkets contained horse DNA seemed to provoke more hilarity than horror.
With none of the health implications that surrounded the salmonella, BSE or E-coli outbreaks, the public responded with a cartload of “Everything you want from a store and a little bit mare”-style jests at the retailers’ expense. Apparently unperturbed by the blow to its reputation, the customer care department of Tesco – one of whose burgers was found to be 29 per cent horse – appeared to join in the general levity, signing off from its Twitter account on Thursday night with the words, “time to hit the hay”.
Yet, entertaining though the equine quipping was, the discovery is no joke; not for the company, which had £300 million wiped off its market value, or for the other retailers, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland, which, like Tesco, were forced to remove thousands of products from their shelves.
It’s not particularly amusing either for the three big processing plants where the contamination took place – Silvercrest and Dalepack (both are owned by ABP Food Group) and Liffey, or for consumers who are being forced to confront the consequences of the drive for lower prices.
With investigations by the Food Standards Agency still at an early stage, it is impossible to know for sure whether the lapse is the result of a gross breakdown in quality control or a deliberate – and criminal – act of fraud.
However, the fact this could happen, despite the traceability and quality control measures supposedly in place, has highlighted the sheer complexity of food supply chains in a global market and the potential impact of the economic downturn on the integrity and labelling of supermarket comestibles.
With buying power concentrated in the hands of a few, meat processing has become a vast industrialised process carried out by a handful of large companies which is shifting vast quantities of different body parts from different animals.
These processors are under constant pressure to keep the prices of their products down, despite the cost of beef rising as a result of increasing demand for grain, so it’s hardly surprising if corners are being cut. Burgers, particularly value range burgers, where the meat content can be as low as 59 per cent, are easy targets because the processors are allowed to bulk out their product with cheaper ingredients such as fillers – additives derived from high-protein powders usually from beef carcasses which are often imported from abroad.
While good systems are in place to ensure the traceability of fresh cuts from British abattoirs, it is much more difficult for processors to keep track of the myriad body parts that are shipped to or imported from the Continent. The contaminated ingredient in these cases seems to have been a filler brought in from mainland Europe. At the same time as supply lines have become more complicated, government investment in policing food safety has been slashed. The powers of the Food Standards Agency were reduced as part of the coalition’s bonfire of the quangos, and many local authorities have cut the number of checks they carry out as a result of the economic downturn. The shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said 700 trading standards officers had been axed and the meat inspection budget cut by £12m as part of the government’s austerity package.
Intense lobbying on the part of the supermarkets has also led to light-touch regulation, with the onus on supermarkets to ensure all regulations are adhered to. Suppliers have to have documented quality control and traceability procedures in place, but some claim these can often be little more than tick-box exercises.
With all this in mind, experts believe, it would be surprising if contamination of some sort had not been taking place. “I think what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Professor Chris Elliot, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast. “There are probably plenty of other problems lurking out there we aren’t aware of.”
With professor of food policy at London’s City University Tim Lang agreeing the horse contamination has probably been going on for years, public faith in the integrity of the food system has been profoundly shaken. “Some people are already saying they will be more inclined to buy their burgers from butchers’ shops, where the supply chain is much shorter,” Elliott says.
Not everyone can afford to shop at a butcher’s though. Many people survive from one pay cheque to the next, and rely on value ranges. They, too, expect their food to be uncontaminated. But tighter scrutiny means higher costs some of which will be passed on to the consumer. If prices are to be kept down, some kind of trade-off is inevitable. So, in the wake of last week’s revelations should more money be invested in scrutinising the integrity of our food system? Or is it time to accept that, if we want cheap, processed food at a time of rising prices, we need to be a bit less fussy about what it contains?
That the current contamination scandal was uncovered at all was a bit of a fluke. It is not routine for the Food Standards Agency to carry out DNA tests to test the authenticity of meat products. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland was acting on a tip-off when it carried out the analysis that revealed pig DNA in 23 out of 27 samples, traces of horse DNA in 10, and 29 per cent horse DNA in the Tesco burger. Further tests carried out by the Silvercrest processing plant found horse DNA in nine out of 13 samples and the plant has halted production. The pig DNA could be the result of cross-contamination in plants which handle both animals, but, since horse meat is not sold in the UK, the horse DNA must have come from elsewhere.
Late last week, Ireland’s Department of Agriculture said it was close to identifying the single supplier of an additive thought to have been responsible.
“When you have a food industry that is driving down costs all the time, suppliers will look to get the cheapest product,” said Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney.
Of course, tampering with food to maximise profit is nothing new. “It’s been going on for centuries,” says Lang. “It happened in Roman times, medieval times. It goes on and [as long as it’s gone on] there have been battles between the public interest and the food industry and the state.
“From the 13th century, there were regulations that food should be of certain standards, to stop people adding water to food or mixing a cheap flour with a more expensive flour, putting lead into the flour to make it look whiter.”
More recently, of course, there have been some high-profile and potentially deadly scares – salmonella, BSE (which spread because the spinal cords of cows were used in burgers), Sudan Dye 1 and E-coli.
“What we have got in this case is something that has come with 20th-century capitalism, which is you’ve got very long supply chains,” says Lang. “If you want a burger you can go into your butcher, see a slab of meat, ask for a kilo, get it minced up, take it home add onions, spices, egg and you have a burger. But because we don’t have the time or the skills or the inclination to do it, we hand over that responsibility to a company and when we do that there is an always an incentive to produce cheaper goods with cheaper ingredients.”
Lang says burgers are particularly vulnerable to adulteration because, with the introduction of the European single market, food compositional standards going back to the early 19th century were swept away. “Essentially a new deal was created that as long as food was safe, anything could go into it, so long as it was traceable and so long as the company at any particular point in that chain could show due diligence that they had done their best to make sure it was safe and OK.”
Of course, more recent labelling laws mean food products should now clearly state what ingredients they contain; even if there are no health implications, selling meat which inadvertently contains pork or horse DNA may cause religious or cultural offence.
But Dr Emma J. Roe, of Southampton University, who studied meat supply chains during the mid-noughties, believes the way in which animal body parts are transported across Europe makes such contamination incredibly difficult to prevent.
“I spent time in abattoirs and watched as the least desirable parts of the carcass were sent off for processing,” she says. “They have to get as much money as they can from each carcass so chickens beaks and feet, for example, get sent off to those places where it’s acceptable to eat them – there is a global dispersal of the body parts.
“There’s very good traceability of meat which goes through UK abattoirs, but when it comes to what’s happening in meat processors, who are making very cheap products using what is, in effect, waste from the fresh meat supply chain, it’s more difficult to keep track.
“You would hope that there are people who are thinking carefully about what is coming through their factory if they know they’re supplying UK consumers who don’t want to eat horse meat. But they may be receiving products from the Continent in bulk. If you have a whole loads of vacuum-packed parts of animal carcasses coming in, you have to be pretty knowledgeable about your animal parts to be sure what species they are coming from. The way the market in body parts operates, it would be difficult to ensure there was no cross-contamination”.
The fact that – though consumers are concerned by the lapse in quality control – there has been very little backlash at the thought of eating horse per se shows cultural sensibilities are changing. Eyebrows have been raised at the revelation that around 8,000 horses were last year slaughtered in the UK and exported for consumption in other countries, but consumers, used to the sale of exotic meats such as zebra, ostrich and buffalo, are less squeamish than they used to be. Though some animal welfare experts have pointed out that horses are sometimes treated with phenylbutazone, which can cause anaemia in humans, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland says no traces of the drug have been found in the samples, so the ramifications of the contamination are likely to be limited.
So what will happen next? Well, some MPs have called for the supermarkets to be prosecuted, but historically, prosecutions have been few and far between and labelling offences tend to attract fines so small (when set against their vast profits) they hardly register. The Food Standards Agency has set out a four-point plan for its investigation – to continue its review, to try to understand the factors that have led to cross-contamination, to assess whether legal action is appropriate and to work with local and UK government on a UK-wide study of food authenticity in processed meat products. But, in the current climate, it is highly unlikely politicians will want to see the onus for ensuring food safety and authenticity shift back to the state.
The supermarkets have suffered a significant setback (particularly Tesco, which had just announced its best UK sales growth in three years) and are likely to increase their own scrutiny, at least in the short term. “In the next few weeks every burger from Land’s End to John O’Groats will be tested,” says Elliott.
But such comprehensive monitoring is costly and once the media frenzy dies down, it’s likely to be business as usual. Tesco – which placed full-page apologies in national newspapers – and the other supermarkets will assure us that procedures have been put in place to prevent any repeat of the problem. And consumers will go back to buying their value range goods. Until the next time.