Horse trading gives a boost to science & a COOL EU

Controversy has arrived with the New Year in the UK and Ireland as DNA testing revealed that horse meat has been used in beef burger production in meat plants in Ireland and England. One of Tesco’s suppliers, the Silvercrest plant in Ireland owned by Anglo Beef Processors (ABP), has been forced to close whilst the plant is cleaned of horsemeat DNA and an explanation for the horse meat contamination is found. Lidl, Aldi and Iceland stores were also affected by this contamination. ABP has pointed the finger at a Polish supplier of beef product whilst Tesco has said that non-approved suppliers have been used by Silvercrest and that there has been a great breach of trust. To add to ABP’s woes, Burger King has terminated its supply contract with ABP/Silvercrest. It’s not just Tesco and Burger King that are annoyed, Irish farmers are up in arms as they see their reputation for quality beef trashed.

At this stage we can’t say who is to blame or who did/didn’t do something wrong/illegal. But ABP is not a small company and this breakdown in beef traceability is set in the context of the EU’s very strict regime for beef sourcing and labelling. In theory this sort of contamination could not happen unless someone was falsifying records. Further, Tesco insists that its contract stipulated that only Irish or UK sourced beef should be used in its products.  As Tesco says in its press release, there has been a breach of trust.

Let’s leave the details of this incident for a minute and consider what this episode means for the meat industry in general. We can safely say the following;

1. Science-based audits, via DNA testing, will become commonplace in Europe across all species and meat plants as retailers and brand owners strive to protect themselves from human error or corruption. These major companies just cannot afford this potential damage to their reputations.

2. Consumers will renew their interest in product labelling – the EU’s ideas on country of origin labelling (COOL) will get a boost from this bout of “horse trading”.

When people originally used the term horse trading they were referring to the shrewd but often dishonest deals and negotiations made by those buying and selling horses. Ironically, these examples of bad practice uncovered in ABP’s meat plants may open the door to labelling and testing procedures that, finally, give the sellers of meat (equine, beef or otherwise) a chance to make an honest living. If brand-owners and retailers are prepared to regularly apply DNA tests to supplies there will be little or no chance of deceit by anyone in the meat supply chain: horse trading in the food industry would become impossible.

Dr John Strak, Editor Whole Hog