Britain’s food watchdog is taking action following the discovery of horse DNA in a significant percentage of 27 beef burger products tested by Irish authorities.
It is promising a British-wide study of food authenticity in processed meat products.
The companies at the centre of the furore have implicated meat sourced from the European mainland from EU-accredited suppliers.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) this week published the findings of tests on beef burger products.
A total of 27 beef burger products were analysed, with 37% – 10 of the 27 products – testing positive for horse DNA and 23 (85%) testing positive for pig DNA.
The beef burger products which tested positive for horse DNA were produced by two processing plants, Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods, in Ireland; and one plant, Dalepak Hambleton, in the UK.
In nine of the 10 beef burger samples, horse DNA was found at very low levels.
However, in one sample from Tesco, the level of horse DNA indicated that horsemeat accounted for about 29 per cent relative to the beef content.
All of the retailers involved have removed potentially affected products from their shelves, including in Britain.
Britain’s Food Standards Agency has confirmed that it has met representatives from the food industry – producers, processors and retailers – from across Britain to explore the reasons that could have led to the products being sold with horse and pig DNA.
“Industry representatives confirmed the existing processes that they follow to ensure that the products that reach consumers are of the highest standards,” the agency said.
“These include quality controls in place at all stages of the food chain. They also set out the actions that they have already taken in response to this incident.”
The agency noted that there were two distinct aspects to the case. In all but one of the cases, the levels of horse and pig DNA were extremely low. In the one exceptional case, the level of horse meat accounted for 29% of the meat content.
“The causes of these two problems are therefore likely to be different and the focus of the investigations into the causes will be different,” it said.
The agency said it had set out a four-point plan for its investigation, which it will be implementing in conjunction with other Government departments, local authorities and the food industry:
- To continue the urgent review of the traceability of the food products identified in the Irish survey. The retailers and the British processor named in the survey have been asked to provide comprehensive information on the findings by the end of January 18.
- To explore further, in conjunction with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the methodology used for the survey to understand more clearly the factors that may have led to the low level cases of cross-contamination.
- To consider, with relevant local authorities and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, whether any legal action is appropriate following the investigation.
- To work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the devolved rural affairs departments and local authorities on a British-wide study of food authenticity in processed meat products.
ABP Food Group, which runs Silvercrest Foods and Dalepak Hambleton, two of the companies which produced the burgers found to be contaminated with horse DNA, said it was introducing a new testing regime, including DNA testing, for all meat products.
“ABP takes this matter extremely seriously and apologises for the understandable concern this issue has caused.
“ABP Food Group companies have never knowingly bought, handled or supplied equine meat products and we acknowledge the understandable concern created as a result of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s DNA frozen beef burger test results.”
The issue, it said, affected only frozen beef burgers supplied by Silvercrest Foods and Dalepak Hambleton, and while there is no food safety issue, a full withdrawal was implemented.
“Our 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 of the UK and Ireland. Fresh meat products are unaffected.”
It continued: “We are shocked by the result of these tests, and are currently at a loss to explain why one test showed 29% equine DNA.”
ABP said current investigations were centred on beef products originating from two suppliers, and it had dispatched auditors to their sites to conduct unannounced spot checks.
“We are conducting our own DNA tests on a wide number of samples and expect the results in the coming days,” it said.
“While extensive and thorough safety checks are conducted on all meat products, the industry does not routinely DNA-test meat products for species. As a result of this incident we are implementing a new testing regime for meat products which will include DNA analysis.
“Should our own testing prove positive, we are also considering our options in respect of the two suppliers concerned. It is vital that the integrity of the supply chain is assured and we are committed to restoring consumer confidence.”
Ireland-based Liffey Meats, in commenting on the discovery of equine DNA in three of its products, said: “It must be emphasised that the levels of detection were minute.”
In two of the three samples, the levels were so low as to be at the limit of quantification – less than 0.016%. In the other case, it was less than 0.1%.
“Liffey Meats has never produced, purchased or traded any equine products. We do import some raw ingredients as part of our manufacturing process for certain products,” managing director Francis Mallon said.
“As part of their analysis programme with us, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland identified traces of equine DNA in some of these raw ingredients,” he said.
“These ingredients were supplied from an EU-approved plant and were certified as from bovine sources only.
“We now believe that such imported raw ingredients were the ultimate source of the DNA traces found in some of our products.”
Mallon said the firm was carrying out extensive DNA testing of all categories of ingredients used on the site.
“This is a precautionary measure only, however we believe that we must undertake any measure that can provide additional reassurance to our customers.”
Mallon continued: “I would like to emphasise to all our valued customers my determination to ensure that we at Liffey Meats have in place every possible control feature in order to prevent any recurrence, however inadvertent the initial cause may have been.”