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LGC Response to question of horse meat in burgers and possible food fraud

16 Jan 2013
Tags:  BiologicalFood

Investigations are under way to try to find out how beefburgers on sale in UK and Irish supermarkets became contaminated with horsemeat.

When asked about the issue, Michael Walker, Science and Food Law Consultant with LGC, said, “In the UK the presence of horsemeat and, for some, pigmeat in beefburgers, is objectionable and emphasises the need for vigilance in monitoring the supply chain with sound analytical testing. How it got there is speculative but I agree with the initial quotes suggesting that the root causes of this incident are likely to be either illegality or negligence by suppliers.

"It is possible that human error diverted the supply of horsemeat from legitimate continental producers to the plants that seem to be implicated. In some countries, of course, horsemeat is a legitimate part of the supply chain and traditional recipes for salami and salami-type products may include meats from animals such as wild boar, horse and donkey.

"However, given the financial climate, it is also possible that fraud – including cheaper meats to ‘bulk up’ the main constituent meat product - is involved.

"The possibility of undeclared and unwanted meat species in meat products is a well known risk. Thankfully there do not appear to be any health implications here but the incident emphasises the need for vigilance. A relatively large survey for horsemeat in salami was carried out in 2003 with essentially negative findings but this sort of thing crops up from time to time.

"Regarding the presence of pigmeat in beefburgers, the FSAI have suggested that an explanation may be cross contamination from handling pork meat in the same plant. This is a credible explanation, especially if the levels found were low but is worrying in that cleaning and separation are basic to good hygiene and should have worked to prevent cross contamination.

"In the UK, it is an offence under Sections 14 and 15 of the Food Safety Act 1990 to sell food that is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded by the consumer or to falsely or misleadingly describe or present food. Consumers do not expect horsemeat in beefburgers and for those who wish to avoid pigmeat the description and labelling of the food must be accurate and honest to allow them to do so.

"DNA testing for meat species is a well established technique and I am sure the FSAI laboratories carried out stringent quality control of their testing to ensure accurate results.

"Although objectionable to many, the presence of horsemeat carries no safety implications provided the proper hygiene and safety checks took place prior to and after slaughter. However 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.

"Lastly there is a section of the population that is at very real risk from undeclared and fraudulent switching of food ingredients in the supply chain. People with allergies depend on accurate and honest labelling to protect them and there have been fatalities when, for example, peanuts have been used to substitute for more expensive nuts in food products.”