Andrew Arbuckle: Tougher meat processing rules likely to be on the menu

Honest labelling of products such as burgers is needed. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Honest labelling of products such as burgers is needed. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
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‘So NOW we know where Shergar ended up” – which as far as I am concerned was the best joke among a heap of bad ones spawned by the finding of horse meat in beef burgers.

The whole horse meat issue rekindled in me an idle curiosity as to why we do not eat horse meat in this country. The wonder first came across my mind as I chomped my way through a fine horse meat steak on a recent visit to Brussels.

Other cultures seem to incorporate this meat in their menus without dying from maudlin emotion. In rural France, I believe it used to be said that the last service the faithful farm horse could provide was a meal for the farmer and his family.

Yet, even 100 years ago when there was more horse flesh on UK farms than almost any other sort of meat, it never seemed to form part of the rural diet. To the best of my knowledge, the old farm horse always went off to the knackery where its bones helped to make glue and its flesh went to feed cats and dogs in the towns and cities.

Thanks to some pretty swift and effective public relations work by both Quality Meat Scotland and the National Farmers Union of Scotland, most of the fallout from the scandal of horse meat being found in beef burgers has so far been felt elsewhere.

It is also worth reflecting that the damage to Scotland might have been worse if we had not had some 20 years with a pretty comprehensive farm assurance scheme in place providing confidence to consumers in how livestock are produced.

But I fear that Scottish farming and meat processing will still suffer some aftershock ripples from what has been a mightily damaging affair for several of our top retailers.

However, I do think there is a way in which the Scottish livestock industry can benefit from the experience from last week. More on that a little later.

I may just have imagined it, but on the day the news broke, I thought I could hear a distant rumble of thunder and the sound from far away of “discussions” between the big retailers and their processors.

I am sure retribution for the public humiliation of the big supermarkets will be considerable. They will have hated where they found themselves last week and the processors will pay for it.

Because this will be company to company business, the financial or business consequences of the horse-meat-in-the-burgers debacle are unlikely to become public knowledge, but I would bet they will be substantial.

I am sure the ripples from last week’s wrongdoing will bring further demands on suppliers of all food commodities. As every farmer and processor who supplies supermarkets knows, there is already a long list of requirements and last week’s debacle will see a further chapter added to that list.

For example, I would be pretty sure that among the additions will be a clause stipulating that meat processors carry out DNA testing on all meat being packaged for supermarket shelves.

Apart from the cost of this, this introduces what could be a much bigger problem. DNA testing is very precise – as has been shown when it picked up molecules of pig meat in other beef burger samples.

This is big and bad news for those consumers who abhor pig meat for religious reasons – and it gives those processors who operate multi-species abattoirs a mighty headache.

So, these are possible negatives from last week, but what about inserting a big positive? Just as the food scares in the 1980s and 1990s produced assurance regimes which were initially found onerous but which have helped protect the industry in this latest scare, the time has surely come where farmers now push the retailers to stop the practice of “co-mingling” meat.

This clumsy word covers the mixing of meat from different sources – often in an effort to reduce the price of the end product. This can include bringing together UK produced meat with cheaper imported cuts to provide bargain or economy pies, patés or burgers for sale.

Economy is laudable but it masks transparency. Co-mingled meat products can still be labelled with a large Union Flag and the weasel words of “packaged in the UK”.

Let the horse meat debacle provide the platform for a stop to mixing of meat and let us have honest labelling. Let that be the legacy from last week.