Food watchdog alive to fraud in supply chain
When we began our authenticity survey of processed meat products in the Irish market last November no one could have foreseen that we would uncover an EU-wide food scandal.
The adulteration of products containing beef has resulted in numerous lines, including burgers, meat pies, pasta dishes, sauces and soup withdrawn from sale.
More than 23 EU countries are now involved and the scandal extends as far afield as Hong Kong. Investigations by the authorities are ongoing across Europe and thousands of products are being tested by food companies. Nobody was aware of the adulteration of beef products with horse meat before it was identified in Ireland. Many supply chains are suspect. It seems clear that in respect of many convenience foods labelled as containing beef, cheating the customer is common practice.
Every food safety control agency in Europe, such as ourselves in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), has to understand what is happening in the industry sectors that it regulates. “Food safety intelligence” is key; in essence helping our scientific experts assess the risks of any food process or practice and guides our initiatives. All the information we gather, plus regulatory requirements, feeds into planning the annual food monitoring and surveillance programmes we implement to protect consumers in relation to food.
Consequently, the FSAI oversees an extensive programme of food testing in Ireland aimed at safeguarding consumer health and checking compliance by industry with labelling and other relevant food legislation. While we can’t examine, inspect and test everything in a sector with about 50,000 food businesses and millions of products and ingredients, we identify where the highest risks of safety and fraud are and focus on these.
That strategy has proved successful. Since 2005, our routine monitoring (like our meat products survey in November) has used DNA testing to look at the authenticity of chicken fillets, smoked wild and farmed fish and takeaway fish products. It is disappointing to say that on each occasion we have discovered that the product we tested was not what we found in some samples. Our testing covers a diverse range of microbiological hazards and chemical compounds whose possible presence is tested in official modern laboratories.
Our meat product survey was carried out against a background of increasing prices of raw materials used in food and feed manufacture, and the global sourcing of ingredients. This can lead to a temptation to cut corners. The longer the supply chain the higher the risk that something can go wrong, in this recent case it was the substitution of beef with horse meat.
As an enforcement authority we are familiar with calls from the food industry to reduce the regulatory burden and assertions that private sector standards are more rigorous and than those of the public authorities.
Given that most of the food companies caught up in this scandal adhere to private sector standards, this demonstrates that official regulations and standards need to continually evolve to be ahead of the curve to identify fraud in the food chain.
Many standards tend to focus on food safety and food hygiene, but clearly now they need to be strengthened to include food authenticity. For meat products this should include meat speciation and the use of DNA-based analytical techniques to test for animal species which may be present in raw ingredients.
Equally, claims that brands are a guarantee of quality and reliability have been deflated as a result of the horse meat scandal. Convoluted supply chains have done little to bolster confidence in traceability controls by manufacturers and suppliers. One of the positive outcomes of this issue will be routine DNA testing by the food sector and this will be beneficial to consumers.
The FSAI is now co-ordinating a monitoring programme to establish the prevalence of fraudulent practices in the marketing of processed meat products. We are also working closely with the Department of Agriculture in implementing a monitoring programme for the detection of phenylbutazone residues in horses in order to ensure that only appropriate products enter the food chain.
While the FSAI considers that there was not a serious food safety risk associated with our findings, it did show how effective our national food control system is in underpinning consumer confidence in the integrity of Irish food.
As people become further removed from the sources of their food supply, trust becomes the key ingredient for businesses. Regaining it will require much change.
* Prof Alan Reilly is chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland