Meat debate turns towards traceability and regulationMarch 2013
The controversy over horsemeat in Europe has brought a key corporate responsibility principle to the fore – supply chain management.
The horsemeat found in some processed beef products is said to originate from Romanian abattoirs, but it then passes through dealers and processors in Cyprus, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg. Finally, frozen beef meals containing horsemeat have reached supermarkets in 16 countries.
In the UK, the businesses affected include Aldi, Burger King, the Co-operative, Findus, Iceland, Lidl, Makro and Tesco. The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has closed an abattoir in West Yorkshire and a meat-processing plant in Wales, having allegedly found ‘blatant misleading of consumers’.
Food experts say horsemeat is not dangerous, but a product is illegal if its ingredients do not match those outlined on the label, and there is a possibility that a few people allergic to horse hair could suffer adverse reactions to the horsemeat.
Some blame for the adulteration is directed by the National Beef Association at supermarkets on the receiving end. Chairman Oisin Murnion believes retailers expect to pay ‘simply unrealistic’ low prices to suppliers, who become tempted to mix cheap horsemeat with beef.
Dr Mark Woolfe, the FSA’s former head of food authenticity, says the underlying cause is an EU ban on using ‘desinewed’ beef – the scraps that remain after prime cuts are removed and which are then added to other beef products. The ban has reportedly driven producers to find alternative meat sources.
Other observers highlight a recent Romanian law banning carts drawn by horses and donkeys from the roads. These animals have entered the meat market, though Romania denies adding them to beef.
Several approaches, including regulation in various forms, are being suggested to remedy supply problems.
The UK National Farmers’ Union and other similar bodies want traceability standards observed in British agriculture to be replicated throughout the supply chain.
Professor Tony Hines, head of food security and crisis management at the Leatherhead Food Research organisation, which advises the global food industry, regrets the cost-cutting in services.
He said: “We have got to make sure there is laboratory capacity across Europe and not just labs waiting for a crisis.”
Kay Stanisland, managing director of UK retail monitoring and quality assurance consultancy Assosia, recommends mandatory independent trade sampling, in which food at retail and trade outlets is bought off the shelf and laboratory-tested.
She said: “[This] is one of the only ways to ensure that the product consumers are buying contains exactly what it says on the tin.”
Catherine Brown, the FSA chief executive, puts responsibility for regular testing onto the retailers, who she said may have to publish quarterly food testing figures.
Hinting at regulation, Owen Paterson, the UK environment secretary, said retailers and producers had a duty to show they had done everything necessary to check supply chains.
Meanwhile, ministers from EU countries are in talks, promising new systems to prevent meat contamination.
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