Supermarkets and meat processors told to find source of contamination as Food Standards Agency explores legal action
Food standards watchdogs in Britain launched an urgent inquiry into beef produce after frozen burgers contaminated with horse and pig meat were identified in Irish tests, leading to four of the major supermarkets clearing their shelves.
The British and Irish governments, food watchdogs and companies involved began a pan-European investigation of supply chains for beefburger products found to contain equine and porcine DNA.
David Cameron told MPs the contamination, originally revealed by Irish authorities on Tuesday, was “a completely unacceptable state of affairs”.
Pointing the finger at supermarkets, he said that although investigations were now looking at the supply chains, “it is worth making the point that ultimately retailers have to be responsible for what they sell and where it has come from”.
Supermarkets with contaminated products and a British processing plant in north Yorkshire have been given until Friday to come up with definitive information on what went wrong. The Food Standards Agency said on Wednesday that it, alongside local councils and its Irish counterpart, would see whether legal action against companies involved was appropriate.
The agency added that it would work with devolved rural affairs departments and local authorities on a nationwide study of “food authenticity” in processed meat products, but it gave no details.
Some companies took beef not implicated in the tests by Irish authorities off the shelves as a precaution as the meat industry sought to avert a consumer backlash such as those caused by BSE during the 1990s and the dioxin contamination of Irish pork in 2008.
Although neither supermarket was implicated in the tests, Asda withdrew nine burger lines while it carried out checks on suppliers and Sainsbury’s withdrew one line from sale.
On Tuesday, the Irish investigation by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) found that Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland stocked beefburger lines contaminated by DNA from horses, although not all were sold in stores in England, Wales and Scotland. But all the firms also withdrew burgers in the UK.
Nearly £300m was wiped off the value of Tesco at one stage on Wednesday. Tests on one of its burgers in the Irish inquiry had suggested that 29% of the meat content was from horses.
The FSAI inquiry covered beefburgers processed at two plants in Ireland, Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods, and at Dalepak Hambleton in North Yorkshire, and analysed 27 beefburger products with best-before dates from last June to March 2014. Ten – 37% – tested positive for horse DNA and 85% were positive for pig DNA.
The FSAI analysis also found traces of horse DNA in batches of raw ingredients, including some imported from the Netherlands and Spain.
A total of 31 beef meal products such as cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne were tested, with 21 found to be positive for pig DNA. All were negative for horsemeat. Another 19 salami products were tested but showed no signs of horse DNA.
The FSA, which met meat producers, processors and retailers on Wednesday afternoon, said the causes of the Tesco burger contamination were likely to be different from other cases where levels of contamination were “extremely low”.
The FSA said checks for horsemeat had not been conducted in the past because it did not pose a threat to health.
An academic warned on Wednesday that this lack of testing means consumers could have been unwittingly eating horsemeat “for years”. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University, London, told the Daily Telegraph: “For too long we have had light-touch regulation. The Food Standards Agency has to be institutionalised into taking a more critical approach.”
The meat processing industry admitted the “rare and unusual” incident could damage its reputation.
Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processing Association, said: “We must get to the bottom of what went wrong and why, and how such an incident can be prevented in the future. Our customers and consumers must be able to put their trust in our industry.”
Tim Smith, Tesco’s group technical director, said: “We will not tolerate any compromise in the quality of the food we sell. The presence of illegal meat in our products is extremely serious.”
Ireland’s agriculture minister, Simon Coveney, said the traces of horsemeat probably originated in the Netherlands and Spain. It was “totally unacceptable” that almost a third of the meat content of a burger could be horsemeat but there was no evidence yet to show a manufacturer had knowingly brought in horsemeat.
Defra, the department responsible for food policy in England and implementation of EU rules across the UK, said: “Consumers should have confidence that food is exactly what it says on the label and there are strict rules requiring products to be labelled accurately.” Any “appropriate enforcement action” would be taken, it said.
Shuja Shafi, the deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said “misdescription” of food was a great concern.
“As far as we are aware, these products are not labelled as halal, and therefore from a faith-dietary perspective this particular incident does not seem to affect the Muslim community.
“However, companies providing meat or any such food products, as well as food retailers, need to make sure proper assurance schemes are set in place so consumers feel comfortable in knowing what they are buying.”