How to restore belief in beef
Last October Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at University College Dublin, almost seemed to predict the crisis when he spoke of a huge disconnect between consumers and modern farming and food production. Consumers are encouraged to think there was a straight line between farm and fork, “but it’s more like a maze” he told a conference organised by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
Wall says one ham sandwich could contain trimmings of meat from three continents. “People have unrealistic expectations. They think there should be no risk in their food,” he says, but everything comes with a risk.
That point is echoed by Prof Mike Gibney of UCD’s institute of food and health, who says there is no end to the number of checks that can be done, but resources are limited.
“I think it’s easy to say we should have discovered it . . . The fact that we did discover it, and it wasn’t the British or the Danes who discovered it, I think is a good point.”
Like DNA tests at crime scenes, the test that was used by the food-safety authority is so sensitive that it can pick up traces of DNA from meats that were processed in the facility on a previous day.
The British Food Standards Agency has said the Irish authority’s test is a novel one that it will be adding to its armoury of food-safety tools.
Farmers are infuriated by the controversy. Gabriel Gilmartin, the president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, points to the high levels of bureaucracy farmers face, saying they are deeply uneasy about the thought that these high standards of scrutiny may not be matched elsewhere in the food chain.
It is also a major headache for Bord Bia, which has been working to reassure overseas customers since the controversy broke.
Looking at media coverage of the events this week, Reilly said he was at a loss to understand why the media was doing so much damage to the Irish meat industry.
“Our study was focused on frozen beef burgers, on products at the cheapest end of the market,” he says. “We have absolutely no issues with mince. We’ve no issue with fresh burgers. But the media seems to have gone mad with it in terms of talking Irish beef, and prime cuts and sides of Irish beef. We’re not looking at those types of products at all. They are not on our radar screen.”
So what will happen now, after this controversy blows over? ABP Food Group has said it will introduce its own DNA analysis.
Reilly says the entire meat industry must introduce its own testing on bought-in ingredients.
“They may not know too much about the provenance of them. Some of these products are bought on the open market. They need to assure themselves that they are putting beef into beef burgers, pork into pork products and so on,” he says. “That type of testing needs to be the norm for the food industry in the future.”