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The European scale of the horse meat scandal

20 February 2013 by
The European scale of the horse meat scandal

Since news first emerged that horse meat was entering the food chain under the description of beef, barely a day has gone by without yet more revelations of its scale and scope.

What at first looked like a reasonably isolated incident, brought to light by testing undertaken by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), spiralled into a full-blown scandal as investigations revealed lengthy supply chains spreading all over the continent.

The FSAI's investigation found horse DNA in over a third of the budget beefburgers and pig DNA in 85% of them. The results were announced on 15 January, and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was alerted in the UK because of the close relationship between UK and Irish supply chains.

The FSAI identified three plants as the source of the contaminated beef: Silvercrest Foods in Ireland, Dalepak in Yorkshire (both of which are subsidiaries of ABP Food Group) and Liffey Meats in Ireland. ABP pointed to its suppliers in the Netherlands and Spain, while Polish suppliers have also been blamed, although inquiries are still ongoing.

Meanwhile, the process to establish how some Findus "beef" lasagnes ended up containing 100% horse meat unearthed a long trail that saw Findus place an order with French company Comigel, only for the latter to farm the order out to another French firm, Spanghero, from its Luxembourg subsidiary Tavola. In turn, Spanghero placed the order with a trader in Cyprus, which in turn put the order out to a trader in the Netherlands, which in turn placed an order with an abattoir in Romania. The Romanian abattoir sent the meat back to Spanghero, which delivered it back to Tavola.

Since then, other supermarket chains have been forced to admit that some of the products they sold also contained equine DNA, including Aldi, Co-op and Tesco.

CATERING TRADE WOES And in the past week it has emerged that the catering trade has not escaped unscathed. Testing revealed that some lasagnes supplied to hotel and restaurant group Whitbread by Brakes were contaminated. Contract caterer Compass said it had sold beefburgers distributed by Irish firm Rangeland Foods to a small number of sites in Ireland and Northern Ireland, while Burger King dropped Silvercrest as a supplier of its burgers as a result of the scandal.

The revelations have sparked frenzied testing of meat products, with reports that some laboratories were struggling to keep up with demand to complete tests before the FSA's 15 February deadline.

The FSA had asked the industry to test for equine DNA in food down to a level of 1% and it appears that despite the slew of negative press coverage regarding the scandal, most producers and operators have been compliant even down to that low level.

As of 15 February, 2,501 beef products had been tested. The FSA said 2,472 of these (almost 99%) were negative for the presence of equine DNA at or above the level of 1%. A total of 29 samples, relating to seven products, were positive for undeclared horse meat at or above a level of 1%. At least 950 tests were still in progress, the FSA said.

Meanwhile, the attention on where the contaminated meat may have originated shifted back home, with the arrests last week of three individuals on suspicion of fraud. Two of the men, aged 64 and 42, were arrested at Farmbox Meats near Aberystwyth, while a 63-year-old was also arrested at the Peter Boddy Slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.

THE CONSEQUENCES Regardless of whether the contamination of beef turns out to have been the result of criminal activity, the effects of all the negative publicity are likely to be far-reaching. Early surveys indicate that consumer attitudes towards meat may be changing, as they have increased concerns about the environmental impact of meat. Some 24% of 2,257 UK adults surveyed by Consumer Intelligence said they would buy less processed meat.

And the scandal has done nothing to slow the rising price of meat. John Pinder, managing director of Lynx Purchasing, said: "Beef prices for caterers rose by about 8% over the past year, and we were forecasting a more stable period over the first half of 2013 before the crisis over the contamination of processed beef products became apparent.

"Without prejudging the outcome of any investigation, for the most part UK meat producers operate under some of the most stringent quality standards of any EU country, and reputable suppliers are now seeing increased demand for their products.

"Restaurant and pub operators, as well as their customers, will now be looking for meat from suppliers with short, transparent supply chains. That is likely to push up demand, and therefore the cost, of good quality beef trim and offcuts."

UK
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that Dalepak in Hambleton, Yorkshire, was supplying beefburgers containing horse DNA to UK supermarkets. Horse DNA was found in numerous products including some Tesco beefburgers, some Findus lasagnes, Tesco Everyday Value spaghetti bolognese and some Aldi frozen lasagnes. Meanwhile, Burger King dropped ABP Food Group (which owns Silvercrest Foods and Dalepak) and switched to another supplier. It found that some of its burgers contained horse meat.

Last week, tests by Compass, Whitbread and a Lancashire school meals service all discovered equine DNA in food products. Compass blamed Rangeland Foods in Northern Ireland for supplying beefburgers containing equine DNA. Brakes has recalled its branded lasagne after tests found a lasagne product supplied to Whitbread contained equine DNA.

Meanwhile, Farmbox Meats in Llandre, Aberystwyth and Peter Boddy Licensed Slaughterhouse in Tormorden, West Yorkshire, were raided on 11 February by the Food Standards Agency on suspicion they passed off horse meat as beef for takeaway burgers and kebabs, leading to three arrests. Both firms deny any wrongdoing.

Batches of stored meat containing horse DNA were found at Rangeland Foods and Freeza Meats in Northern Ireland, but both firms said none of the meat reached the food chain.

FRANCE

 
GERMANY
Frozen lasagnes were starting to be removed from supermarket shelves in Germany after some tested positive for horse meat.

HOLLAND
Dutch firm Draap Trading confirmed it had bought meat from Romania but said it had been labelled correctly.

IRELAND
Concerns about horse meat in meals labelled as containing beef first arose in Ireland on 15 January after authorities there found horse DNA in beefburgers made by Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods, supplied to Irish and UK supermarkets.

ITALY AND SPAIN
Nestlé, the world's biggest food company, removed beef pasta meals from shelves in Italy and Spain after tests revealed traces of horse DNA. Deliveries from a German supplier have been frozen. The products will be replaced with those containing 100% beef.

LUXEMBOURG
The base of the Tavola factory, owned by Comigel, which makes ready meals. Local authorities estimated that about 20 tonnes of horse meat, wrongly labelled as beef, were used at the factory.

POLAND
Irish authorities said at the end of January that they believe "filler product" made from horse meat and beef found in contaminated burgers came from Poland.

ROMANIAFrench firm Spanghero, which supplied meat to Comigel's Tavola factory in Luxembourg, named Romania as the source of horse meat found in frozen ready meals made by Comigel under the Findus brand which were later sold in the UK. Romanian firms rejected any suggestion that they had mislabelled horse as beef.

SWITZERLAND
Some ready meals for sale in supermarket chain Coop were found to contain horse meat. The meals were found to have been produced by French firm Comigel.

Sources: FSA website, the BBC, The Guardian

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