Saturday, February 09, 2013

Horse meat scandal spreads to continent

The British environment minister Owen Paterson says he is "absolutely determined" to get answers about food testing in the UK at a summit into the horse meat scandal.

However this promise of action will be of little comfort to millions of consumers across Britain who have learned they may have consumed horse meat in products that claimed to be made of 100% beef.

First signs

The scandal first came to light on the 16th January when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced they had found beefburgers with traces of equine DNA, including one product classed as 29% horse. The products had been supplied to supermarkets by Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, subsidiaries of the ABP Food Group.

Ten million suspect burgers were taken off the shelves of many stores including those of Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes. Then came another find at Liffey meats, based in County Cavan, Ireland.

Only one day later the ABP Food Group suspended work at its Silvercrest Foods plant in Co Monaghan, Ireland. Meanwhile Sainsbury's, Asda and the Co-op withdraw some frozen products as a precaution.

Burger King contamination

By late January the problem had spread to fast food outlets with Burger King withdrawing several products from sale and announced it was switching to another supplier as a precautionary measure. Then only days later the company admitted its products had been contaminated.

Meanwhile, Waitrose removed a range of frozen burgers made by Dalepak but insisted its own burgers had been tested and shown to be 100% beef. The Food Standards Agency in the meantime says tests at a Dalepak plant in North Yorkshire found no traces of meat contaminated with horse or pork DNA.

Up to 100% horse

February brought more reports of contaminated meat products. The Irish department of agriculture confirms that production at a second meat supplier, Rangeland Foods in Co Monaghan, is suspended after 75% equine DNA was found in raw ingredients. The department also called in police to aid its investigation, including allegations of possible fraud.

The crisis then spreads across the border after frozen meat at the Freeza Meats company in Newry, Northern Ireland, is found to contain 80% horse meat. The find was potentially linked to the Silvercrest factory in the Republic of Ireland. The reports prompt Asda to withdraw its products supplied by Freeza Meats.

Then on the 6th of February Tesco and Aldi withdraw frozen spaghetti and lasagne meals produced by the French food supplier Comigel following concerns about its Findus beef lasagne. Then came the revelation that some Findus beef lasagnes contained up to 100% horse meat forcing Iceland to empty shelves of the product.

Disastrous for food suppliers

The ongoing saga was described as potentially "disastrous" for the meat processing industry by retail analysts. Lost contracts with supermarkets "will undoubtedly cost them millions of pounds", Neil Saunders of retail analyst Conlumino told the BBC, "The loss of supply contracts could be disastrous for food suppliers." He also suggested the scandal could result in job losses. "It wouldn't surprise me if there were redundancies," Saunders said.

Losses to the retail industry could run into millions of pounds. As well as destroyed products, litigation could ensue. Customer confidence in ready meals and other processed foods could also drop leading to a loss in profits to the whole food industry.

Unanswered questions

The question, as yet unanswered, is how horse meat ended up in the beef chain. Was there confusion between the two meats that were processed in the same plant? Or, as some have suggested, was there a criminal conspiracy.

Environment minister Owen Paterson is sceptical the problem boils down to a simple mistake. "There may well be an international criminal conspiracy," Paterson said Friday. Talking to the BBC he called leaders of the FSA "and all the main retailers to sit down and go into detail about how the current system works".

"I really want to get to the bottom of this because I'm very proud of our British farming industry, the traceability through the system, rigorous production systems in our own industry."

But there are still worries that many products have yet to be tested, and today it was announced that all schools and hospitals would be subject to testing [Sky News].

Customer confidence

While horse meat is often eaten in many other European countries, there are concerns not so much that the meat ending up in processed meat products may not have been of the highest quality.

The most worrisome concern is whether a painkiller commonly used on horses was in the horse meat supplied. Phenylbutazone, or 'bute' as it has been referred to recently, is not a major risk to human health though some people have had adverse reactions. As such any horse treated with 'bute' is not allowed to enter the human food chain [Telegraph].

Another main issue highlighted by the scandal concerns the correct labelling of products. However it is hard to believe that Findus lasagnes would have sold well in Britain should the packet declared it was made with 100% horse meat!

Different attitudes

For some, the whole affair seems rather blown out of proportion. Meat is meat after all. But different countries and cultures have different sensibilities over what they are prepared or willing to eat. Horse is widely eaten around the world. In France many towns have specialist butchers selling only horse meat. It is commonly served in China, Russia, Central Asia, Mexico, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, Belgium and Argentina. But in Britain, Ireland and America many diners would baulk at the sight of a horse steak [Telegraph].

In Korea, dog meat is commonly eaten as it is in many parts of China, though attitudes are changing. Cat too is also consumed in many parts of Asia. And it wasn't so long ago that Europeans ate cat. Some countries have resorted to the consumption of cat meat in desperation during wartime or poverty, including the United States. Cat became known as "roof rabbit" in Central Europe during and between World War I and World War II when it was commonly eaten. The edible dormouse still finds it way onto plates in Slovenia where it is considered a delicacy.

Attitudes often come down to how society looks upon an animal. Where animals are raised as pets such as cats, dogs and rabbits, the idea of eating such creatures is often rejected. There is also a repugnance factor, especially in the case of insects, amphibians or snails.

It all depends how one is raised. Cheese is often seen as repulsive amongst many Chinese, yet they will happily chew on marinated chicken feet cooked with chilli  Most westerners have difficulties when it comes to the peculiarities of Asian cuisine, especially if confronted with unusual creatures.

Unknown quantity

Despite such differences existing across cultures, the lesson best learned from the horse meat scandal is perhaps to question everything that is in a packet. While contaminants cannot be completely avoided, by buying basic foodstuffs - fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables - the consumer can eliminate most risks of cross contamination. A carrot is a carrot, a fish is just a fish.
Once sliced, diced, chopped, pureed and tinned it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine what is in the product.

Perhaps we should all get back to basics and leave behind the fast food prepacket ready meal TV dinner culture. After recent events the science fiction film Soylent Green seems just one step closer.

In the film much of the population survives on processed food rations, including "soylent green" which turns out to be made of people!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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