Never a better time to eat a burger
As the horse-meat saga continues to develop – 40 days later – here are 10 questions you never thought you’d need to ask about the food on your plate
The story landed on news desks at 5pm on a quiet Tuesday. The email’s astonishing subject line referred to horse in beef burgers. The statement from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announcing the discovery of horse DNA in frozen patties had to be read and reread. Then all hell broke loose.
Forty days later, what have we learned from the horse-meat saga? Is our food safer now than it was before we heard about the infamous Tesco burger with 29 per cent horse meat? And should we be bracing ourselves for more food scares?
Here are 10 questions being asked since the talk at the water cooler turned to the provenance of frozen beef trimmings and the life span of Romanian donkeys.
1 What is bute, and could it harm me?Bute, or phenylbutazone, is commonly used by vets as a painkilling anti-inflammatory for horses. In humans, if taken in high doses, it can cause a rare disorder called aplastic anaemia, or bone-marrow failure. All horses treated with bute must have their passports stamped to show they are unsuitable for the food chain.
Last week the UK’s Food Standards Agency found that six horse carcasses testing positive for bute had been sent to France and could have entered the food chain. Concern has also arisen that Irish horses could have entered the food chain illegally with false passports.
Although eating meat containing bute is a health risk, medical authorities say the risk is very low. The UK’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, says a person would have to eat 500 horse burgers a day to get close to consuming a human’s daily dose.
But suppose your diet is laden with processed food? She says bute passes through the system fairly quickly, so it is unlikely to build up. And nutritionists say if you are eating that much processed food then you are in far more danger of dropping dead from the fat and salt than from the bute.
2 Is it safe to eat burgers?There has probably never been a better time to eat minced-beef products, as Europe’s food-safety watchdogs, supermarkets and food companies are all frenziedly testing what we consume. But if a Findus beef lasagne has been languishing at the back of your freezer since last year, perhaps you should give it a miss.
Sales of frozen beef products in supermarkets are down by more than 40 per cent. Craft butchers, on the other hand, are enjoying a booming trade. The Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland says some butchers’ business has jumped by 25 per cent since the horse-meat scandal began. Its development manager, Dave Lang, says craft butchers make their burgers each day from their own produce. “They’re not buying meat that’s been frozen for 12 months in a store somewhere with no provenance.”
He says it’s a question of trust. “Your local craft butcher is a member of the local community. It isn’t in our best interests to sell rubbish to customers, because that’s the best way to get rid of them.”
3 Could I have eaten a horse-meat burger?Nobody knows how long horse meat has been an added extra in some beef products, so you could have consumed it if you ate a burger or minced-beef product in a restaurant, pub or canteen. But horse meat has been detected in only a small number of products so far. Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney believes horse meat has been used for at least a year. The head of the UK Food Standards Agency says we’ll never know how many people unintentionally ate horse.
Although supermarkets have been bearing the brunt of criticism for mislabelling, Margaret Jeffares of Good Food Ireland says some parts of the hospitality sector are lax when it comes to transparency about ingredients. People queuing up in a work canteen may have no idea where the mince in the cottage pie comes from, whereas supermarkets have to label it.
Good Food Ireland promotes the use of good local ingredients to help build a quality food brand for Ireland. “It’s very important to have that transparency within the hospitality sector so that consumers have the choice,” Jeffares says. “If the produce is Irish, they should be saying it. The only way we can force the situation is by customers asking where the food is coming from. And it should happen everywhere, in Government canteens, hospitals, not just restaurants or five-star hotels.”