By Mike Urch, SeafoodSource contributing editor
Published on 17 February, 2013
The horsemeat scandal keeps on growing. What started in Ireland and the U.K. has now spread to other EU countries including France and Germany.
Major supermarkets, including some of the biggest in the world such as Tesco, have been discovered selling manufactured beef products containing varying amounts of horsemeat. Frozen lasagne and spaghetti bolognese made in France were found to contain up to 100 percent horsemeat.
During the last few weeks, U.K. government ministers and regulatory officials have been falling over themselves to reassure the British public that there was no risk to their health if they had eaten one of these products. Prime Minister, David Cameron, even had himself photographed eating a beef burger, one of the first products on sale in the U.K. to have been found to contain horsemeat.
Despite these reassurances, there is a possibility that some horsemeat in so-called beef products contains the drug phenylbutazone, commonly called “bute,” which is routinely used to treat horses but has been reported to possibly cause cancer in humans.
However, health, vitally important though it is, is not the major issue of concern in this instance. When a supermarket puts a product labelled “beef” on its shelves, customers have every right to assume that the product contains just that and no other animal protein.
That trust has now been broken and recent research conducted by Retail Week magazine indicates that shoppers will avoid buying meat from stores caught up in the scandal.
For years now, the big supermarket chains have been claiming that they have standards in place whereby they can trace every ingredient of the products they sell back to its source. This has now been conclusively proven not to be the case. Tesco, where the scandal started in the U.K., has admitted that it didn’t know horsemeat was present in some of its beef products.
The UK’s No 1 supermarket is now trying to regain customer confidence. In a full page advertisement in The Guardian newspaper, it says: “We are reviewing our approach to our supply chain and building a thorough traceability system that includes DNA testing.”
In another move to regain consumer confidence, Owen Paterson, the U.K.’s Environment Secretary, says that the European Commission should consider extending the country of origin declaration that is mandatory for fresh meat to processed meats.
It is not just supermarkets that have been selling horsemeat as beef. Major caterers have also been involved and some supermarket bosses are now trying to deflect criticism to this sector of the market.
The chief executive of Iceland, who was interviewed on television yesterday, categorically stated that the real culprit in this scandal was the catering industry. He told viewers that public sector authorities which negotiate contracts for schools and hospitals are “driving down food quality” in order to be able to sell at a cheap price.
As a result of the ongoing scandal, DNA testing could become mandatory for processed meat products. The U.K. Food Standards Agency has already insisted that DNA tests be carried out on a range of processed meat products and this approach has been reinforced by the European Commission. On 13 February it announced that thousands more DNA tests are to be carried out by member states.
How does all this affect the seafood industry? In the short term it could increase sales as consumers move away from processed meat. In the long term, traceability standards could be tightened and DNA testing introduced; the industry is well known for often trying to pass off a cheap species for one that is more expensive.
It is almost certain that things will never be the same again on the regulatory front, and everyone connected with processing and selling seafood should ensure that they have their house in order.