A deliberate swindle by foreign suppliers seeking to save money is a likely cause of the contamination of supermarket beefburgers with horsemeat, experts said today.
Cheaper horse flesh – a popular meat in mainland Europe – may have been used by Continental companies to bulk up more expensive beef during the downturn, academics said.
They described the presence of traces of horsemeat and pork in burgers sold by five British and Irish supermarket chains as an alarming breach of controls introduced in the wake of the BSE crisis.
Tesco’s shares fell by 1 per cent, or £300m, yesterday after it removed all 21 lines of frozen own-brand burgers supplied by an Irish meat processor, Silvercrest, from its 3,000 British shops. Two other British chains, Asda and the Co-op, also removed burgers made by Silvercrest as a “precaution.”
The action followed the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s announcement on Wednesday that it had detected horse and pig DNA in burgers supplied to Tesco and four budget chains, Aldi, Lidl, Iceland, and Ireland’s Dunne Stores.
The tests were first carried out in November but the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) had been waiting for further specialist analysis from Germany before alerting the public and stores this week.
Of 27 beefburgers tested, 10 – equating to 37 per cent - tested positive for horse DNA and 85 per cent positive for pig DNA. In one sample of Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers, horsemeat comprised 29 per cent of the stated beef content.
A further analysis of 31 beef products including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne showed that 21, two-thirds, contained pig DNA.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) said that the food had been supplied to supermarkets by two Irish firms, Silvercrest Foods and Liffey Meats, and one British one, Dalepak Hambleton in North Yorkshire. All three said they were unaware of the presence of horsemeat and were urgently trying to trace its source. There is no suggestion of dishonesy on their part.
However there are more searching questions about meat Continental suppliers. Tests by the FSAI found horse DNA in raw ingredients imported from Spain and the Netherlands, and Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Minister, Simon Coveney, said the contaminated meat appeared to have originated from them.
The FSAI and the British Food Standards Agency, which launched its own investigation yesterday, said that eating horsemeat was normally safe, but the discovery raised concerns about the integrity of the food system – where traceability is viewed as essential as a result of the BSE crisis in the UK in the 1990s.
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London, one of the country’s foremost food experts, said: “So far as we know, there are no safety implications, but it does raise deep concerns. Firstly, is it fraud? No label declared the horsemeat or traces of pig DNA.
“Secondly, it appears to be adulteration, a cheaper meat being substituted for a more expensive one. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, this exposes failings in commercial food governance.
“Big retailers are supposedly in control of the food system, yet their management and contracts and specifications have been found wanting. If I was on their boards of directors I’d want an overhaul of their commercial governance on meat products.”
Michael Walker, a consultant at international food analysts LGC, said human error could have been to blame for the adulteration given that horsemeat was a legitimate part of the supply chain on the Continent, where traditional recipes for salami and salami-type products sometimes included wild boar, horse and donkey.
He added: “However, given the financial climate, it is also possible that fraud – including cheaper meats to ‘bulk up’ the main constituent meat product - is involved.”
He went on: “If fraud was involved there is a risk that those checks were ignored, resulting in unknown possibilities of microbiological and chemical hazards such as food poisoning and veterinary drug residues.”
Fraud is estimated to account for as much as 10 per cent of food sales, with common examples including Vietnamese catfish being passed off as cod, ordinary olive oil as extra virgin and vegetable fat as mozzarella.
Three years ago The Independent revealed how suppliers in the Netherlands, Spain and Germany were bulking out chicken exported to Britain with protein from pig and beef gristle and bones.
Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, said: “The great bulk of food products, including meat and meat products, are safe, produced to good quality standards and correctly described and labelled by food manufacturers. But this episode - rare and unusual though it is - undermines consumer confidence and trust in the meat industry, and causes reputational damage to it.
“We must get to the bottom of what went wrong and why, and how such an incident can be prevented in the future.”
Raw, fried or grilled, it’s just like beef
The Taste Test
The first time I ate horse meat it was raw. I was in a restaurant in the Tuscan town of Lucca. Cavallo tartare came with usual accomplishments – egg yolk, chopped onion, frites etc – and the finely diced flesh was delicious. Since then I’ve consumed it grilled, fried and in salami.
Though many people have issues with eating horse meat, as long as they’re not vegetarians, the problem isn’t likely to be its taste or texture.Essentially it’s just like beef.
If you have it as a steak, you might notice it’s leaner and less marbled with fat, and sweeter than beef. But you easily might not – and if you had it minced up in a burger –you probably wouldn’t.
The great trencherman Jonathan Meades had his first encounter with French food on holiday in Saint-Malo, aged eight.
He had horse steak and chips and never looked back. He says for the best chips they should be cooked in horse fat, as they are in Belgium.
One day I hope to find out about that, too.