Horse DNA in burgers may have come from additives

Finger of suspicion now points at suppliers of high-protein powders based in the Netherlands and Spain

The Tesco burgers that contained up to 29% equine DNA were likely to have been made with high-protein powders derived from horse rather than fresh meat, the Guardian has been told.

The main focus of efforts to trace the source of adulteration in the Tesco economy burgers has now shifted from the meat itself to additives used in the manufacturing process. The Irish processors ABP have pointed the finger at suppliers of the “beef ingredient products” it uses to make cheap burgers. The Tesco burgers were only 63% meat and 37% other ingredients.

Economy burgers are typically bulked out with additive mixes of concentrated proteins extracted from animal carcasses and offcuts. Sources in the industry have told the Guardian that the 29% horse DNA is thought more likely to have originated with these high-protein powders from rendered horses rather than any fresh horse meat. ABP declined to comment on its ingredients or on the companies it uses for additive mixes but they are believed to be located in the Netherlands and Spain.

Tesco said it could not comment on the source of the horse DNA while it was still investigating with its supplier and the relevant authorities.

All the major retailers have been given until Friday afternoon to present to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) a full list of the sources of meat and other ingredients used in their burgers. The FSA is negotiating plans with local authorities to test samples of beef products from retailers around the country for the presence of DNA from other species including horse and pig. The FSA does not itself have the capacity to sample and test around the country and local authorities who do have mostly cut their budgets for food standards testing drastically as their finances have been squeezed.

The FSA is now expected to announce that it will make its own DNA checks on meat shortly, following revelations from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland earlier this week that it had found significant contamination and adulteration of beefburgers with horse and pig in supplies that had been sold in Ireland and the UK.

On Thursday MPs criticised Tesco in the Commons for not checking its own meat supplies and asked why the contamination was spotted in Ireland and not by UK watchdogs.

David Heath, the food and environment minister, suggested that there was “criminality” involved in the meat trade that resulted in horse DNA being found in burgers. He told Labour’s environment spokeswoman, Mary Creagh, who had asked an urgent question on the issue: “It is very important neither you, nor anyone else in this house, talks down the British food industry at a time when the standards in that industry are of a very high level.

“Because something has been discovered in Ireland, which is serious, which may lead to criminal proceedings, does not undermine the very serious efforts which are taken by retailers, by processors and by producers in this country to ensure traceability and ensure standards of food that are available to consumers.”

Creagh said there was “understandable” public anger – particularly from religious groups – about supermarkets selling food that was not properly labelled. “Consumers who avoid pork for religious reasons will be upset they may have unwittingly eaten it, and eating horse is strongly culturally taboo in the United Kingdom. It’s not illegal to sell horsemeat but it is illegal not to label it correctly.

“The UK is part of a global food supply chain,” she said. “The food industry lobbies vigorously for a light-touch regulation system from government. Testing, tracking and tracing ingredients is expensive but not testing will cost retailers, processors, British farmers and consumers much more.”

She said ministers should consider introducing DNA testing of meat products – a move the Guardian understands is now being prepared by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) – and suggested the loss of 700 trading standards officers could have made what she called fraud “more widespread and less likely to be detected”.

Creagh said: “The coalition agreement stated: ‘We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact’. On the evidence of the last few days, you still have quite a way to go.”

Meanwhile, animal welfare campaigners suggested that horse meat imported into the EU from elsewhere in the world may pose a risk to human health.

Humane Society International(HSI)called for a moratorium on meat originating from US horses taken across the border to be slaughtered in Mexico or Canada. There are no horse slaughterhouses in the States.

HSI said ex-racehorses and other animals were routinely given veterinary drugs banned in the EU, where consumers eat about 80,000 tonnes of horsemeat a year, a third imported from outside the union, much of it from Argentina, Canada and Mexico.

The group’s claim is disputed by EU officials at the commission’s health and consumer directorate. They say Mexico and Canada have to provide the necessary guarantees that all meat from slaughtered horses meet EU requirements, which are currently under review.

The British Horse Racing Authority said 1,127 throughbreds went to abattoirs in 2011. In October last year, a report from six equine welfare organisations said thousands of horses and ponies were being abandoned, neglected or sent to abattoirs as irresponsible breeding, spiralling bills and rock-bottom sale prices took their toll. They were particularly worried that with UK slaughterhouses paying £230 for a horse or £400 for a mare and foal, some dealers were trying to cash in on the taste for horsemeat abroad.

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