At least horse meat scandal leads to tighter rules

But the food sector still has a lot to do to win back consumer trust


Over three months have elapsed since the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) uncovered the practice of replacing processed beef with horse meat. Initial inquires put the spotlight on three processing plants, two in Ireland and one in the UK. Soon, it became evident the problem was not confined to these islands, as most countries in Europe became involved.

It is disturbing that in Europe where, in the wake of food scares, the food control systems have undergone extensive review and renewal, a scandal of large proportions went unnoticed and undetected.

The scale of the scandal is astounding. Numerous foods, beef burgers, beef meals, pies, meat balls, kebabs and remarkably, even chicken nuggets were removed from sale. One recall alone in the Netherlands involved 50,000 tonnes of meat – over 500 million burgers. Leading international food brands and retailers were caught in a web of deception perpetuated in Europe for at least a year, possibly longer.

Some businesses have ceased, others lost market share, and consumer confidence eroded. Brands and reputations carefully nurtured over years will take a long time to recover their association with quality and trust. Apart from reputational damage, the scandal resulted in the regrettable waste of considerable quantities of food.

What is clear is the risk to public health from this incident is low, as most evidence to date suggests the horse meat used came from approved abattoirs. All products in Ireland that tested positive for horse DNA, tested negative for the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, or “bute”.

Thousands of bute tests on horse meat conducted as part of the Europe-wide testing programme in March, found only 0.51 per cent of samples positive. Food products containing bute were found on sale in Greece, Portugal and the UK. The European Food Safety Authority together with European Medicines Agency reaffirmed the risks associated with bute were “of low concern to consumers”.

Nevertheless, the practice of replacing processed beef with horse meat and failing to inform consumers is unacceptable. The primary motive is profit. Perhaps in a recession, regulatory agencies and the food sector should have been more alert to the potential to exploit price differentials, duping consumers and businesses alike.

Fraud is an age old problem in food. It was the reason for Ireland’s first major piece of food legislation in 1875, when the Sale of Food & Drugs Act was enacted. Good will come from the current scandal, as food control agencies re-learn the need to check, not just for safety, but for fraud. The production and retail trade will be sparked into taking greater responsibility for controls in their supply chains.

Already changes are coming. Global standards for the trade in beef trim will become more stringent. It will no longer be the industry norm to purchase frozen beef blocks on face value. Laboratory testing for species authenticity will be commonplace. DNA testing of meat products will be standard for major retailers. Verification of the authenticity of meat species will underpin product labelling.

The value of business-to-business assurance schemes will be questioned. Most food companies caught in the horse meat scandal used registration to private schemes or standards as a basis for trade. No doubt these private schemes and associated standards will be revised to take account of potential fraud.

A sinister aspect of the horse meat scandal is its effect on competitiveness. Contracts to supply processed food products are won or lost on price. Where suppliers can undercut competitors by using cheaper raw materials without declaring their true nature, for instance by illegally substituting beef with horse meat, it unfairly skews competitiveness. It also results in a race to the bottom in terms of quality. This should be examined under EU Competition rules.

As ever with food incidents, an important lesson is how risk communication minimises damage to reputations and brands. There were interesting contrasts in how food companies responded to the crisis, from denial to full acceptance of responsibilities.

Our experience is that the more a food company is open and transparent , the less likely it will be accused of cover up or lack of due care. The horse meat scandal demonstrated again how proactive risk communication and acceptance of responsibility increases public trust and minimises reputational damage.

As to the future, from the FSAI’s viewpoint, the horse meat scandal confirmed our belief in the value of regular policing of the food supply, combined with the use of the modern scientific analytical methods.

We can anticipate there will be strengthening of our food laws in addition to food regulatory agencies being required to include checks for food fraud, as well as food safety in their control programmes. This will require more sophisticated methods of risk assessment and create demands for improved analytical capability within official laboratories.

Penalties or sanctions for those convicted of food fraud will be increased. Horse passport systems will be tightened. Pressure will increase for country of origin labelling of all meats, given the convoluted and lengthy food chains which became evident during this scandal.

The food sector has learned the hard way contamination and adulteration of products can happen to the biggest food businesses in the world and the race is now on to win back consumer confidence and trust. The winner from this food fraud scandal will be the consumer, who will benefit from added controls.

ProfAlan Reilly is chief executive of Food Safety Authority of Ireland

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