Never a better time to eat a burger

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

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.”

4 Can I spend my way out of dodgy food?The agrifood industry has been predicting the end of cheap food for some time, and perhaps this is the tipping point. The rising consumption of meat worldwide has pushed up costs such as that of animal feed, as the growing middle classes in China, India and elsewhere adopt more westernised diets.

This has encouraged the growth of long supply chains, which allow processors to buy ingredients from the cheapest possible source through an intricate web of international meat traders and cold stores.

KPMG UK’s head of supply chain, Andrew Underwood, points to one study that found more than 450 critical control points between an animal’s conception and its consumption. “It means that there are opportunities at almost every step of the way, such as at the abattoir, the processing plant and at the point of packaging, where checking needs to be done, not just at the end of the production line,” he says.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland study that sparked this furore concentrated on cheap beef burgers because this is where the corners were most likely to be cut.

So if you spend more money are you guaranteed to get authentic food? You certainly have a better chance of doing so. Advocates of healthy eating such as the chef Darina Allen have long argued that it’s more economical to spend money on good local food than cheap processed food.

Allen says these keep you healthy and reduce your spending on doctors, dentists and vitamin tablets.

5 So should we change the way we eat?Some people already have. In Britain, a survey by the research agency Consumer Intelligence found almost one in four people plan to buy less processed meat because of this scandal, and 21 per cent said they had already started to buy less meat in general. This could be a fad.

A UN Environment Programme study published this week encourages people to change their habits for good. Its lead author, Prof Mark Sutton of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, calls on people in rich countries to become “demitarians” – eating half as much meat as usual. The report says our food and energy production has caused “a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health, causing toxic algal blooms, killing fish, threatening sensitive ecosystems and contributing to climate change”.

People are eating much more meat than their parents and grandparents, and Sutton says the horse-meat scare makes this a good time to talk about the way we eat.

6 Have we lost our perspective?Is the horse-meat crisis just about rich westerners wringing their hands about the mislabelling of convenience foods while people die of hunger elsewhere?

Hans Zomer disagrees. The director of Dóchas, the umbrella group for nongovernmental Irish development organisations, says this is a genuine issue. “I would certainly not belittle it. Everyone on this planet has a right to food, and a right to good, nutritious food.”

He says poorer people spend a greater proportion of their income on food and are more vulnerable to shocks and unexpected changes. “And the reality is, both here in Ireland and elsewhere, that the options open to poor people are severely limited.

“Those of us with means can switch to other food sources if the price or quality of our staple food has changed. But for many poor people that option is not available.”

He says the global hunger problem is not primarily about a lack of food. “There currently is enough food in the world to guarantee all of us enough calories and nutrients. Rather, it is an issue of unequal distribution and access.”

7 Is this a disaster for Ireland’s much-lauded food industry?It was shaping up to be one until Comigel entered the fray, on February 6th, with a lasagne that would turn out to contain up to 100 per cent horse meat. The Irish meat industry, and the ABP Food Group in particular, must have breathed a sigh of relief when the French food company was drawn into the scandal. Its 100 per cent horse lasagne makes the 29 per cent burger produced in ABP’s Silvercrest plant look almost benign.

The labyrinthine nature of Comigel’s sourcing arrangements dragged half of Europe into the crisis. Comigel had subcontracted its ready-meal production to the Tavola factory, in Luxembourg. Tavola sourced the meat from the French company Spanghero, which bought the meat from a Cyprus-registered trader, who received it from a Dutch warehouse, which was supplied by a Romanian firm.

The crisis has spread across Europe to affect Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Bulgaria and, most recently, the Czech Republic.

Nestlé’s withdrawal of products this week has drawn in the world’s biggest beef producer, JBS Toledo, as the products were made by one of its subcontractors.

What started as an Irish problem is now a European headache that’s causing global ripples. The Irish meat industry will be hoping its international customers remember that the horse-meat controversy was uncovered by the Irish authorities. But it would also like them to forget that Irish plants produced some of the burgers in question.

8 Should I retrain as a DNA tester?There has never been a better time to dust down your CV if you have experience in animal or molecular genetics. DNA testing laboratories, such as Identigen in Dublin, cannot keep up with the demand for testing from the industry and regulators. DNA testing was seen as a luxury before; it has now become a priority, and Identigen staff are working around the clock to process tests. And with a new regime of DNA testing announced by the Minister for Agriculture last week, the future is looking healthy for geneticists.

9 What happens next?Who knows? When the Food Safety Authority of Ireland began its survey of beef products in November, nobody could have foreseen what would unfold. A battalion of tests on beef products is under way at national and EU level, and these results will inform what happens next. The EU has ordered member states to provide the first batch of results on April 15th, or immediately if tests are positive for horse meat or bute.

The UK Food Standards Agency expanded its testing programme this week. Products being tested will now include sandwiches, gelatin, beef dripping and stock cubes. Expect a fresh batch of withdrawals if horse DNA is found in these samples.

Although the focus has been on beef, it would be surprising if retailers and food companies were not testing other foods for adulteration. And what else could go wrong with our food? Well, a glance at the European Commission’s database for its Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed will make you look twice at your next meal.

The online portal lists foods that have been the subject of alerts by member states or rejected at the borders of EU countries. Recent cases include the high content of aluminium in sweet-potato noodles from China; an unauthorised insecticide in fresh strawberries from Egypt; unauthorised use of colouring in pomegranate juice from Russia: and aflatoxins – which have links with liver cancer – in pistachio powder from Turkey. The list goes on and on.

10 That’s all bit grim. Have you any horse-meat jokes to cheer us up?Certainly. Try these out:

They’ll never Findus in here, said one horse to another as they hid in a beef lasagne.

My doctor told me to watch what I eat, so I went out and bought tickets for the Grand National.

Has anyone tested veggie burgers for uniquorn yet?

A driver gets pulled over by a guard who tells him he’s over the limit. “But I only had a burger,” said the driver. “That explains it,” says the guard. “I knew I could smell Red Rum.”

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