Horsemeat scandal: Cuts in testing also to blame

QUITE how the remains of some unfortunate horses that once grazed hundreds of miles away on the European continent found their way on to British dinner plates makes a disturbing story.

QUITE how the remains of some unfortunate horses that once grazed hundreds of miles away on the European continent found their way on to British dinner plates makes a disturbing story.

The odds are that the journey from European slaughter- houses to British burgers and ready meals was the result of what the UK Environment ­Secretary Owen Paterson described yesterday as a “criminal conspiracy”.

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Somewhere along a supply chain that saw horse carcasses converted into processed meat, it would appear that some unscrupulous fraudsters passed it off as beef in order to make a fast buck.

Now it is down to police forces across the UK and Europe to work out where this deception was carried out and to uncover those who worked out there was money to be made from substituting cheap horsemeat with the far more expensive and expensively produced beef.

For British consumers there is little comfort in the fact that horsemeat is consumed widely in some parts of the continent and, therefore, there appears to be no health risks from eating it.

Despite the different dietary habits, however, eating horse in Britain is still considered taboo by most and supermarket shoppers have been victims of an unpleasant deception.

Police investigating how horse ended up in Findus lasagne, a host of other ready meals and fast-food burgers will begin their inquiries in Luxembourg, Romania and Poland, where the suspect meat was probably so low grade it was intended for pet food before being diverted illegally into the human food chain by unscrupulous dealers.

Initial investigations by food standards agencies have found that the supply chain saw two Polish companies, Food Service Meat Company and Mipol, sell suspect raw meat to Danish-owned Flexi Foods, based in Hull. Flexi Foods then sold 60 tonnes of meat to the Irish wholesaler McAdam Foods in Co Monaghan.

From there McAdam sold 170 tonnes of meat on to ABP, the Irish food group that owns Silvercrest in the Republic of Ireland and Dalepak in Northallerton. From there the meat was supplied to Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Burger King.

When traces of equine DNA were found in the product by Irish food inspectors carrying out a random check last month, there were unprecedented scenes with retailers forced to remove more than ten million suspect products off the shelves.

The other route that will form the focus of police scrutiny is the chain that led to last week’s revelation that some Findus lasagne contains up to 100 per cent horsemeat.

The source of that has been laid at the door of a French firm, Comigel, which is a major exporter of French frozen meals from its factory based in Metz, in Luxembourg. There are suggestions that Comigel gets some of its meat, which also found its way on to Aldi shelves, from Romania.

As the police try to track down those responsible for disguising horse as beef abroad, questions have been raised about the quality of the testing regime being employed by food safety officials in the UK amid allegations that meat was being contaminated as long ago as last summer.

Food safety is dealt with by the Food Standards Agency, a UK Government body which has a devolved equivalent in Scotland (FSA in Scotland) responsible to Scottish ministers.

Public analysts are appointed by each local authority and each year carry out thousands of tests on food in partnership with the FSA north and south of the Border.

However, the funding squeeze on councils has led to grave concerns that tests for food contamination are not as rigorous as they once were.

Earlier this month, the Association of Public Analysts (APA) warned that the number of food safety laboratories in the UK had fallen from more than 40 to just 18 now. The number of public analysts has fallen from more than 100 to just over 30.

According to Liz Moran, the president of the APA, the number of products that are tested has fallen. There has also been a move to a “risk based system”, which means that only products where a problem has been identified are tested. According to Moran it is now “very unlikely” that hidden contaminants like horse DNA are discovered in food sold in the UK.

There are four Public Analyst laboratories remaining in Scotland, each operated by local authorities in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

According to one Scottish industry insider, the problems faced by analysts elsewhere in the UK are just as acute in Scotland. “With an ongoing squeeze on local authority budgets the viability of laboratory services is again under review by Cosla,” the insider said.

“Small local authorities on their own lack the resources to equip modern laboratories to police huge global corporations who operate the food chain. The 32 local authorities in Scotland are investigating the creation of a single public analyst or Scottish Scientific Service which would be better equipped to protect the Scottish public from food fraud and food safety issues.”

The insider added: “Self policing by industry and reduced resources spent by local enforcement authorities has clearly failed the Scottish population, who expect their food to be safe and as described on the label.”

Government ministers may attempt to reassure the public and protect the reputation of home grown British beef, which has been unsullied by the scandal.

But there are distressing signs that as more is uncovered about the horsemeat controversy that this scandal is far from over. As Paterson said yesterday “there may well be more bad news”.