MINISTERS AND food safety officials are trying to work out how to reassure a concerned public. Footprint reports from the first supply chain conference after the horse meat scandal.
Laws are like sausages, politicians often quip: it’s better not to see how they are made. Ditto burgers, it seems. But as the government and its agencies begin reviewing the horse meat scandal and – possibly – developing regulations to ensure it doesn’t happen again, they have their work cut out.
In recent weeks both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have confirmed independent reviews of the crisis as they consider the responsibilities of food businesses and practices throughout the wider food chain, including audit, testing, food authenticity, food safety and health issues.
The presence of equine DNA in meat products has “no implications for human health”, speakers told those gathered at the Assuring the Integrity of the Food Chain conference organised by the Food and Environment Research Agency. However,
it has significantly damaged consumer confidence. There is much work to do, starting with ensuring that products are exactly what is described on the tin, carton, bottle or box.
A Which? report published just after the conference suggested that consumers want more information about the food they are buying, including simple and honest labelling. The challenge for policy-makers is where to draw the line; after all, the horse meat scandal flagged two separate issues, food fraud and cross-contamination.
When testing products during horsegate the FSA looked for contamination levels of 1% or more, based on the reliability of the tests, explained DEFRA’s deputy director for food and materials security, Lindsay Harris. “We’re now seeking to establish what level we could test down to. In some cases [like halal] any level of contamination is unacceptable,” he added.
DEFRA has commissioned research on what tests are possible and what is meant by “low-level contamination according to good manufacturing practice”. The FSA, meanwhile, is conducting consumer focus groups. The crisis has forced government to look at the way it regulates food businesses, with what Harris called a “new sense of urgency” regarding changes discussed
at European level, including mandatory country-of-origin labelling for processed products.
However, it was unclear whether there would be further changes to the current labelling laws. The head of the FSA’s local authority audit and liaison division, John Barnes, said: “We don’t want to get into ‘may contain’ issues”.
Sainsbury’s head of quality, integrity and supplier performance, Alec Kyriakides, said there were “huge policy implications” including the question of “what levels of cross-contamination might be appropriate in a factory versus a butcher versus a caterer”. He argued that the level should be consistent.
DEFRA said it was hopeful of some results by next month as it sought a balance between safety and authenticity. “Authenticity is very important to consumer confidence and it’s therefore important economically,” said DEFRA’s Harris. “At the forefront of ministers’ minds is consumer confidence.”
Buyers should have ‘smelled a rat’
Supermarket buyers should have “smelled a rat, or possibly a horse” well before equine DNA was found to have infiltrated the UK food supply chain, according to a former food chief.
In his keynote address, the former Northern Foods boss Lord Haskins said that any professional buyer seeing the cheap meat coming in at such low prices should have known that it “could not have been beef”.
Haskins singled out price pressure as a critical issue, suggesting that “the behaviour of buyers may have had an impact on the way suppliers acted”. His criticism also extended to the catering sector.
“I always laugh at farmers who complain about the supermarkets; the pressure on price in catering is even more intense and that [leads] to cutting corners.”
Haskins said the catering sector had “pretty haphazard” systems in place to manage supply chains and inspections were not at the same level as those in retail.
He also outlined his “five principles” to recover from the horse meat scandal, which can be found at foodservicefootprint.com.
Work to repair the damage done will go on for some time.
Alec Kyriakides apparently called up just an hour before the start of the conference and said he’d be delighted to say a few words about his experiences during horsegate. Earlier in the day, the FSA’s John Barnes had said the saga had been “horrendous”, but Kyriakides said he’d “put an effing in front of horrendous … and we didn’t even have any horse in our products”.
It was the start of a frank, and refreshing, 10 minutes from Sainsbury’s head of quality, safety and supplier performance, who clearly felt for those exposed. They “were let down by individuals somewhere in the supply chain,” he said. “A lot of money and resources go into developing systems to stop this happening. Horse meat wasn’t on our radar.” Of course, he said, not one retailer wanted horse meat in their products given that “all of the retailers’ propositions to their customers is that they shouldn’t have to worry about the safety, quality and that [a product] is what it says it is.”
Restoring consumer confidence is now high on the agenda, for the food industry, ministers and the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Polls have come thick and fast since the scandal broke, with Barnes highlighting research showing that consumers are more concerned than ever about the origin of their meat: today, 78% say it’s important that meat comes from Britain, compared with 55% in 2007. Farmers will be pleased, as Lord Haskins explained in his keynote address. “The horse meat issue will end up with supermarkets behaving better, consumers realising they shouldn’t overreact and farmers bound to benefit because any intelligent supermarket will want to shorten their supply chain.”
Things are already happening: the country’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, has made bold statements about how it will change, while Whitbread has announced a new system to track processed meats from field to fork.
Marketing teams will be in overdrive for many months to come, either to repair the damage or profit from it. McDonald’s, for instance, has hinted that it can benefit from the crisis that hit its arch-rival, Burger King, which found equine DNA in four samples.
Whether there was horse in their burgers or not, the entire food chain has been touched by the horse meat scandal. It will thus take a collective effort to restore the public’s confidence and pride in the country’s food chain. Lessons will be learned and systems will be changed. However, as Kyriakides admitted, that doesn’t mean food fraud will stop. “I have no idea what it will be, but there will be another one – and I don’t say that flippantly.”