Meat scandal is byproduct of stringent food control


Opinion:The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has always prided itself that it is in the vanguard among the food safety agencies of Europe. It assists in differentiating Ireland from other European Union member states as a country with high food safety standards, to support our quality food production industry.

The authority set up a food fraud task force last October to advise on how best to protect consumers’ interests by policing food authenticity.

Previous investigations by the FSAI uncovered smoked farmed salmon masquerading as smoked wild salmon, Chinese honey being passed off as Irish, imported chicken fillets inflated with over 50 per cent water, and cod on sale in chip shops being replaced by cheaper pollock.

The current incident with beef burgers came to light as a result of ongoing FSAI policing of food authenticity.

With increased surveillance and better monitoring, problems, if they exist, will be identified. The identification of problems is key to seeing that they are addressed and any deficiencies in the control systems are remedied. However the downside is the associated adverse publicity for “Ireland the food island”.

Other countries that do not aggressively look for problems may carry on in the belief that all is well along their food chain and be highly critical of our current predicament.

Communicating to the public and international customers that the identification of problems is a reflection of good controls, rather than bad ones, is a nigh-impossible task. Many consumers, both nationally and internationally, have been shocked by the current finding of traces of equine and pork DNA in frozen beef burgers on retail sale in Ireland. Of a total of 27 burgers tested, 22 had traces of pork or equine DNA, with one having more than a trace of equine.

Superior food policing

This test for DNA is not one that is routinely used in the food industry. It emanates from the field of forensic science where individuals are often linked to the scene of a crime by the DNA left behind in their fingerprints.

The test is so sensitive that it picks up molecules of DNA. If equine meat or pork was processed in a facility on adjacent production lines, or even on subsequent days, there would be sufficient carryover, or aerosol spread, of DNA to result in trace contamination of beef products. If beef meat was transported in a refrigerated vehicle that had horse or pork meat on a previous load then this could explain cross-contamination of traces of DNA.

Neither of the two Irish processing facilities implicated in this incident processes or handles horse meat so the million-dollar question is this: “If this is the case, where did the traces of equine DNA come from?”

Furthermore, an explanation is required for the higher level of contamination with equine DNA found in one burger. Initial investigations have revealed a common supplier of ground beef protein to the two processors. This product is used as a filler in the lower-quality burgers. One explanation being considered is that this supplier, located in the EU but outside Ireland and the UK, may also handle horse meat in its facility and contamination inadvertently occurred.

Alternatively there may have been a deliberate substitution of equine meat for the more expensive beef in the manufacture of this powder or somewhere else along the supply chain.

This incident clearly demonstrates that a company’s brands and reputation are only as secure as the standards of their weakest supplier. Most business-to-business trade is based on an element of trust and assurance that the products are in full compliance with all relevant food legislation.

An in-depth examination is being undertaken by the companies and the regulatory agencies to get to the bottom of this. Substantial numbers of samples are being processed to get the definitive explanation.

Assurances that there are no risks to the public’s health are being given on the basis that the routine food safety test carried out by both food businesses and the regulators are all clear. The routine hazards that are monitored for in food safety management systems are foreign bodies, harmful bacteria, chemical residues and allergens.

It is not routine in any jurisdiction to undertake the type of DNA testing undertaken by the FSAI’s food fraud investigation team.

There will be no adverse human health effects associated with this incident. However, consumers are entitled to get what they believe they are purchasing and it has highlighted areas in the current food safety control systems that need to be tightened. If it is a result of accidental contamination, this can be easily rectified, but if it is a result of a criminal act of deliberate substitution that will be more challenging to address.

The food chain is as strong as its weakest link and rigid controls at many points in the chain count for nothing if one link is that of a shoddy operator or a criminal.

Damaged reputation

Some consumers in Ireland are angry that their beef burgers may have been contaminated with other DNA.

However, many are angry that one of our flagship indigenous industries has been severely damaged by carelessness or criminal activity.

The conventional and social media have covered this incident across the globe and the damage to the Irish companies and the image of Ireland has yet to be quantified. Our competitors are quick to use this incident to criticise our controls and standards, yet few if any of them use similar testing technologies in their own supply chains.

It is sad that consumer confidence in the food chain and in Ireland as a centre of excellence has been damaged.

Sadder, especially in the light of the seminar on World Hunger in UCD on Monday and Tuesday of this week (addressed by President Michael D Higgins, Mary Robinson and Tom Arnold of Concern), is that, because DNA at a level of 29 per cent was found in one burger, 10 million frozen burgers have been withdrawn from retail shelves in Ireland and the UK and are likely to be destroyed.

* Patrick Wall is professor of public health at UCD and a former chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland

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