Nigel Miller: Traceability pays off as Scottish beef sales soar

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REPORTS of traces of horse meat in processed beef products first emerged from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in mid-January this year.

Since then, thousands of lines of beef-based processed meals, including burgers, meatballs and lasagne sold in UK and EU retailers, provided via catering companies and produced in different EU member states, have been found by the UK and Scottish Food Standards Agencies to contain samples of up to 100 per cent horse meat.

The National Farmers Union of Scotland has long been adamant that retailers and food manufacturers must put the provenance and integrity of their products before profit. Scottish livestock farmers are angry and frustrated that the high standards to which they produce food are being undermined by fraudulent activity elsewhere in the supply chain.

Consumers and all parts of the food chain should rest assured that Scottish farmers and the Scotch Beef brand can deliver the high levels of traceability and quality that consumers expect.

There is a clear opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to improve their supply chain. Scotch beef’s reputation is founded on premium cuts, such as steaks and roasting joints. However, the whole carcass must be used, and there is ample scope for minced Scotch beef to fill the manufacturing requirement for burgers and sausages. Scottish producers can meet the requirements of large-scale production; for example McDonald’s fill the burger requirement for their Scottish stores with Scottish beef; clearly, scale need not dictate quality and provenance of supply.

This is an opportunity for us to be more positive about our industry. In particular, there is real scope for a new attitude to public sector procurement. This is already happening in some cases, but farmers and local processors could work together to bid for more supply contracts.

When EU agriculture ministers met in Brussels last week to discuss the problem, the EU Commission stated that retailers must be among those that take responsibility for what has happened.

The EU legislative framework, which was supposed to be robust, has been violated. The EU has stated rules need not be changed, rather the audit process needs to be toughened. Interpol has begun a high priority investigation into the problem.

It has also become apparent that information-sharing between member states is not satisfactory. Member states importing processed meat from within the EU may start to introduce more random tests into their inspection regimes: for horse DNA at processing plants and for phenylbutazone in horses at slaughterhouses.

Butchers have reported sales up between 10% and 20%

The EU Commission is also likely to advance a scheduled report on country of origin labelling on processed meat, something which NFUS has long called for. The EU meat processing representative body, CLITRAVI, has questioned the practicality of managing country of origin labelling on products containing processed meat and whether – given the fraudulent intentions of those behind the horse meat scandal – it would have made a difference in this case. Long and circuitous supply chains reflect the creation of an EU-wide single market – how should this be reconciled?

Scottish craft butchers have reported sales up on average between 10 per cent and 20 per cent. Butcher shops are definitely busier, with average sales up, too. In addition, new customers are visiting butchers’ shops and more customers are asking for advice, information and assurances.

Retailers’ reactions to the problem have been mixed. Some of the big supermarkets have a good record in this area and have enjoyed the free and unexpected platform to promote it. Others have been reticent, blaming their suppliers and perhaps blushing at their own inability to trace in detail the food they stock on their shelves.

For shoppers that are confused about what they should do, the message is simple: buy Scotch. In Scotland, we are unusually lucky to have a fully assured scheme tracing Scotch beef and Scotch lamb back to the farm of origin. Scotch meat has to be born, reared and slaughtered in Scotland: our very own, home-grown, short supply chain, meaning that Scots can and do choose Scotch.

In this day and age, it’s not long before people start turning stories into something witty on the internet. A picture has been circulating food and farming circles in recent days with the message: Keep Calm and Eat Scotch Beef. Now, what could be easier than that?

l Nigel Miller is president of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland

• Nigel Miller