Growing EU concern over labelling policy


The suggestion that the DNA traces of horse meat in Irish-made burgers derived from ingredients sourced from other European countries has thrown the issue of EU food legislation into the spotlight.

Since the advent of the single market, food products have been shuttled around Europe. This internal market of food products in turn led to the emergence of a swathe of legislation relating to food and production, particularly in fields such as animal health procedures and hygiene.

Yesterday a European Commission spokesman said because the discovery was not a public health issue, its role is limited. Ireland’s food safety agency, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, followed proper procedures in contacting the commission.

Like other national food safety agencies, the FSAI is obliged to have an official control service in place to monitor food quality. If it finds something suspicious it must contact the directorate general – or department – of the European Commission with responsibility for health.

In cases where there are safety implications – for example the 2011 E.coli outbreak – the European Commission’s Europe-wide alert system,the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, is triggered. In this instance, the FSAI advised the commission that there was no threat to public health.

While the presence of traces of horse meat in Irish beef burgers may not be too palatable for Irish and British consumers, it is not in fact a safety issue. Horse meat, which is produced in Ireland, is a perfectly safe product that is subject to the same regulations as every other kind of meat. The real issue is one of labelling. Consumers have a right to know what is in their food.

As the FSAI continues its inquiry, the core question will be how the DNA traces entered the product and whether deliberate mislabelling took place.

Here things get complicated. While there are standard EU regulations in place as regards food labels, individual member states are responsible for the enforcement of that legislation and decide what penalties apply if a party is found to be in breach of labelling rules.

At the moment, agencies like the FSAI carry out tests, including DNA tests, on an arbitrary selection of products. The FSAI for example, carried out a similar test on fish, which found that almost one in five cod portions sampled were mislabelled. MEP Mairead McGuinness has already called for an EU-wide investigation to see if the FSAI’s findings might be indicative of a wider EU-wide problem.

As Ireland tries to contain any reputational damage that may have been sustained by the discovery of the DNA traces, the controversy is likely to inform the wider debate about EU labelling and provenance generally, particularly with regard to imported, non-EU sourced meat products.