The horse-meat contamination scandal first detected in Ireland six months ago has seen the country’s consumers change their purchasing habits, a survey has shown.
The scandal began after the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced the discovery of horse DNA in processed beef products.
It quickly spread across the Europe, resulting in the recall of tens of millions of ready-to-eat processed beef products found to have similar contamination.
The FSAI described the changes in consumer purchasing habits revealed in the survey of 1003 consumers as significant.
It said more than half (51 percent) of people who purchased frozen burgers in the past were now buying less of these products, while 48 percent bought the same amount.
Virtually all adults in the country – 98 percent – said they were aware of horse meat issue, with almost three-quarters (72 percent) saying they had confidence in Irish food safety controls and regulations. Just 13 percent were not confident, while 15 percent were not sure.
Overall, the issue has resulted in a marked increase in awareness around food safety, with half of respondents saying they were now more conscious about food safety issues in general.
Looking at the implications of the issue for consumer purchasing behaviour, 45 percent of consumers say they now spend more time reading labels on food products.
Over half (53 percent) say they are now more conscious of the ingredients that go into manufactured food products, while 56 percent say they are more conscious about the country of origin of food products.
Of those who bought processed foods containing meat in the past, such as lasagne, shepherd’s pie, etc, 42 percent say they now buy less of these products, while 56 percent continue to buy the same amount.
Buying habits were broadly unchanged for fresh burgers, with 69 percent saying they buy the same amount as before (16 percent buy less, 15 percent buy more). Almost two out of every five (39 percent) of those who consume meat say they were concerned as the issue unfolded, while 61 percent were unconcerned. Of those expressing concern, the following reasons were cited:
Concern about what else might be unknowingly in other meat products (88 percent).
Concern about the presence of chemicals, medicines and antibiotics (86 percent).
Concern about food safety (83%) and possible health risks (76 percent).
Repulsion by the idea of eating horse meat (55 percent).
Commenting on the research findings, FSAI chief executive Professor Alan Reilly said: “It is six months since the FSAI uncovered what would eventually transpire to be a pan-European problem of adulterated beef products across almost all members states.
“Understandably, the issue has given rise to widespread debate about food safety and labelling and this has changed the way people in Ireland view the foods they purchase and consume.
“When buying processed foods, people are not in a position to identify what raw materials are used and, therefore, they rely on labelling as their only source of information.
“They are, in effect, putting their trust in the hands of manufacturers and retailers who have a legal obligation to ensure that all ingredients in their products are correctly labelled.
A key lesson for food businesses is that they must have robust supplier controls in place at all times to ensure that they know who is supplying them and that all products and all ingredients are authentic. Purchasing raw materials on face value is a high-risk strategy for food processors.
“Progress has already been made with enhanced controls and sophisticated tools such as DNA testing now being a part of the food safety armoury,” Reilly said.
“Given the added controls now in place, I believe that the eventual outcome of this food fraud scandal will be a positive one for consumers.”
Reilly noted that the FSAI will continue its routine monitoring and surveillance programmes to monitor foods on the Irish market to ensure that they are complying with the requirements of food law and that they are safe to eat.