The discovery of horse and pig DNA in frozen beefburgers manufactured primarily in Ireland this week has sent the UK and Ireland into a spin as experts try to track its source. While checks are in place here in New Zealand that should prevent a similar thing happening, it is a salutary lesson for the meat industry about what could happen if consumer trust is broken.
What happened in Europe, is that frozen burgers, supposedly made from beef by major EU meat processor ABP Food Group, were routinely DNA-tested by Food Safety Authority Ireland (FSAI) and found to contain meat/protein from other sources including horse and traces from pigs too. The affected burgers, produced in the company’s subsidiaries Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in the UK are sold in Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland stores in the UK and in Dunnes stores in Ireland.
Though the FSAI stated in its announcement on Tuesday (15 January) that there was no food safety risk from the products, all retailers have all reacted quickly to remove the items from sale. Tesco, which has also removed all other products from the suppliers from its stores and online, has apologised to its consumers and is promising them that it will find out what has happened and when it does so, it will tell them.
Other supermarkets have also withdrawn similar meat products while answering the British Food Standards Agency’s urgent questions to all British retailers about the exact contents of those items. To date, a total of over 10 million burgers are estimated to have been withdrawn from sale.
The issue is accumulating column inches in the UK and comment from Jewish and Muslim religious groups, animal welfare groups and unions demanding more transparency and more regulation for the meat industry.
ABP is taking the matter “extremely seriously” and says it has “never knowingly bought, handled or supplied equine meat products.
“We are shocked by the results of these tests and are currently at a loss to explain why one test showed 29 percent equine DNA,” the company says, adding that it was checking thoroughly with the two concerned suppliers and “is considering its options”. ABP is conducting its own DNA analysis of the products and will be implementing a new testing regime for meat products which will include routine DNA analysis.
The company assures that its group companies only buy meat from licensed and approved EU suppliers. “These results relate only to where beef based products have been sourced by those suppliers from the Continent. Only a small percentage of meat is currently procured from outside the UK and Ireland. Fresh meat products are unaffected.”
NZ: legal requirements not to mislead
Here in New Zealand, there are legal requirements not to mislead the customer, says the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), which will be keeping a close eye on proceedings in the UK.
New Zealand processors are subject to performance-based verification by MPI and meat products are not permitted for export until they first comply with requirements for sale domestically. In addition, MPI provides export certificates that provide MPI-verified assurances on the species of animal from which the exported products were derived.
Under its mandatory Species Verification Programme – which checks the effectiveness of the regulatory requirements in place to ensure truth in labelling with respect to species of origin – MPI samplers collect 300 samples of meat from randomly allocated cold stores all around the country. Each sample is tested and the test includes checks for contamination by other possible species, using the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), which identifies proteins unique to a species. For example, a sheepmeat sample will be tested for the presence of cattle, deer, goat, horse or pig meat. These tests are conducted by an MPI contracted laboratory to do independent testing using an International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) method. The contracted laboratory operates under comprehensive quality systems that, as a minimum, comprise compliance with the ISO 17025 ‘Standard for technical competence of testing laboratories’.
In addition, the Australian/New Zealand Food Standards Code maintains standards for meat and meat products, specifying the proportions of fat free meat flesh and fat (sausages, for example, must contain no less that 500g/kg of fat free meat flesh and the proportion of fat in the sausage must be no more than 500g/kg of the fat free meat flesh content). There are also separate checks for contaminants and residues.
Together, these controls minimise the possibility of a meat not being mentioned in packaging being in the New Zealand product, says MPI, adding that there are no known incidents where a meat product in New Zealand was discovered not to be what it said it was.