The beef industry: A lot done. More to do
Back in 1996, at the time of the BSE crisis, an effort began to ensure that a steak on the shelf could be traced back to its farm of origin. The Department of Agriculture oversees a scheme under which cattle are tagged and given passports without which they cannot be killed in an Irish abattoir.
IdentiGen, an Irish company with laboratories in the UK, US and Canada, offers the DNA TraceBack scheme to big retailers. DNA samples taken at abattoirs are put into a database and matched with the tags and passport details. A steak that ends up on a retailer’s shelf can then be checked to see if its DNA matches the DNA of the beast killed in the abattoir. In this way, a particular steak can be traced to a particular cow reared on a particular farm.
Ireland became a world leader in its policing of the beef food chain. But problems remain when it comes to minced meat and processed food, especially where there are multiple suppliers.
Crisis and opportunity
Paddy Cunningham, professor of animal genetics at Trinity College Dublin, a former chief science adviser to the Government and a founder of IdentiGen, says the crisis is an opportunity for Ireland to up its game by creating a database that would contain the DNA of all slaughtered Irish animals. Consumers across Europe could then know that the Irish steaks they are buying in supermarkets are what their labels claim.
But the horse-burger scandal has highlighted the fact that burger producers that get their meat from traders, who in turn get it through a supply chain that moves down from suppliersto cutters and abattoirs, have less control over what is going into a product than its packaging might imply.
Senior figures in the sector foresee shortening of the supply chain to companies that supply supermarkets and other retail chains, which can lose huge sums of money if consumers lose trust in their products.
Another topic that has arisen is the use of forensic-science procedures, not unlike those in the TV drama Crime Scene Investigation, to test meat products. These supersensitive tests can detect minuscule amounts of contaminants. The press release from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that started the burger scandal last month disclosed that large amounts of horse meat were found in Silvercrest burgers and that other, non-ABP products it had tested contained tiny amounts of pig DNA.
In this way two issues were confused. The food industry allows products to be declared free of genetically modified material if they contain less than 1 per cent of it. Given the arrival of widespread DNA testing, a similar rule of thumb is likely to emerge for meats. Particular difficulties exist for religious beliefs that forbid the consumption of pork, and that issue will have to be resolved. About 4.5 per cent of the UK’s population is Muslim.