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UK Stepping Up Hunt for Horse and Pig DNA in Beef

Polish horsemeat mislabeled as beef is the likely source of the equine DNA found in Irish beef products, but the Food Safety Agency in the United Kingdom is still going ahead with tests on more meat samples collected from retail outlets throughout the UK, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Environmental officers for local health authorities are being asked to follow a sampling plan that will end up with a total of 224 meat samples being collected. Results of the initial screening are to be reported by March 11, with confirming tests to be completed by April 8.

UK officials are hoping the additional tests will calm consumers who’ve been wondering what’s in their meat since reports began showing up that horse and pig DNA was being found in beef products.

“I am pleased that we have been able to agree to a way forward to maintain consumer confidence in the food that people eat,” said Catherine Brown, chief executive of FSA. “We need to move swiftly to get this work underway to reassure consumers.”

Two frozen beef companies based in Ireland that have been at the center of the problem were both supplied with Polish meat that was up to 75 to 80 percent horsemeat, according to Irish authorities.

It was random DNA testing of beef sold by supermarkets and meat counters by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) that originally found horse and pig meat showing up in beef products. Now it is FSAI and Ireland Agriculture Department that believe they have traced the problem to Poland.

Unknown is whether the perpetrator is the source of the horsemeat in Poland or one or more of the Irish or British importers involved. “Somebody, someplace is drip-feeding horsemeat into the burger manufacturing industry,” says Alan Reilly, chief executive officer for FSAI.

He said the agency has not yet gotten to the bottom of whatever has been happening.

The UK’s ramped up sampling program is more about food quality than food safety. While horsemeat is legal and does not come with as much as a “ick factor” in Europe as the United States, it being switched for beef has upset many consumers. And many others for religious reasons want to avoid pork.

Food and Farming Minister David Heath’s regular updates on meat testing will be a significant move for restoring consumer confidence “in what they are buying.” He said it’s important for the industry to get behind the effort.

FSA earlier in the week reported tested 12 samples from frozen meat detained in cold storage at Freeza Meats in Northern Ireland and found two that came back positive for horsemeat at around 80 percent.

“The investigation into the traceability of these raw materials and their source is underway,” FSA said when releasing the test results on Feb. 4. “As this meat was detained, it has not entered the food chain.”

The detained meat was probably linked to the Silvercrest plant, located in the Republic of Ireland, FSA added.

The problem of horse and pig DNA in “beef” was first announced Jan. 15 by FSAI. Its food quality testing showed 10 of 27 products, or 37 percent, were positive for horse DNA, and 23 or 85 percent were positive for pig DNA. In nine of ten beef burger samples, horse DNA was found in nine at low levels. In the tenth, however, horsemeat accounted for 29 percent of the total meat content.

The food safety agencies ordered retailers to remove the mislabeled beef products from their shelves and stepped up their investigations.

The fact that Poland is being pinpointed as the source of the horsemeat underscores the fact that meat moves freely across the borders of the European Union’s 27 countries, raising the possibility that the horse and pig DNA problem could involve the entire EU.

The one American brand caught up in the problem has been Burger King, which has a large presence in the UK. It immediately dropped Silvercrest as a beef supplier for its outlets in both Britain and Ireland.

Burger King and Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer, both moved quickly to contain the damage.

© Food Safety News
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     Quality control problems usually contribute to food safety issues, and need to be addressed at the forefront of any supplier management program.