Need to ensure food authenticity
A recall of at least 10 million Irish beef burgers after products were found to contain traces of horse meat along with reassurances there has been no threat to public health are welcome, but they do not go far enough. Consumers of Irish food products at home and abroad must be confident they are of the highest quality, contain only what it says on the labels and have been rigorously tested.
The dioxin scare of 2008, involving contaminated pig meat, cost the taxpayer an estimated €180 million and brought stricter oversight at meat plants. But more needs to be done to ensure food products are authentic and food labels live up to their billing, primarily in the interests of food safety but also to reinforce the reputation of a multinational Irish quality food sector.
Minister for Agriculture and Food Simon Coveney expressed confidence the controversy would not damage the beef industry, noting that 90 per cent of Irish beef exports involve fresh meat, not frozen burgers. That may be so. But Irish and British consumers are likely to operate on an emotional level where consumption of horse meat is concerned. And they may not differentiate between fresh and frozen Irish produce. British prime minister David Cameron found the addition of equine material at a linked British meat plant to be “extremely disturbing”. The fact that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland discovered the contamination will have added to his concern.
None of the meat plants involved deal in horse meat. Yet 10 of the 27 burger packs tested positively for equine DNA. Nine of the 10 packages contained “very low levels” of equine DNA that, it has been suggested, came from imported “binding material” sourced in the Netherlands and Spain. Beef burger material from one plant, however, contained 29 per cent horse meat. The fact that 85 per cent of the samples tested also contained traces of pig DNA emphasises the need for a stricter segregation of production lines at plants where the slaughtering and processing of cattle and pigs takes place. Traces of pig DNA were “very low” in all instances, but any such contamination is unacceptable to some religious groups.
Ireland exports one-third of its pork production and 90 per cent of its beef. Anything that raises questions over the safety, quality or content of that material will damage the trade. A great deal of money has been spent on food safety and traceability between the farm and factory. In the wake of previous controversies, food safety scares and mislabelling, Irish systems are now more robust than in many other jurisdictions. But as IFA president John Bryan has suggested, more rigorous testing of materials introduced into the food chain during processing are needed. There has been no threat to public health and the food industry may escape lightly from this controversy. Restoring reputation may take longer.