European Horsemeat: The Science Behind the Scandal
21 Feb 2013

A recent report from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) revealed that a number of beef burger products contained horsemeat and other non-declared meats. Since this issue came to light on 15th January 2013, the horsemeat scandal has continued to grow and has dominated headlines in the UK and other European countries.

The SelectScience team was keen to know what impact this scandal has had on food testing laboratories and what the future holds for the industry. We spoke with Prof. Chris Elliott, Director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland and Matthew Sharman, Lead Scientist in Veterinary Medicines and Residue Research at the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera).

Current Challenges for Food Testing Labs
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has set a number of deadlines for retailers in the UK to complete. These include tests for the presence of equine DNA in beef products and tests for phenylbutazone, or bute, a veterinary pain killer that has been deemed unfit for human consumption. The Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh recently said, “These new tests need to be done quickly - people want answers now”. However, food testing laboratories, like many other sectors, have seen drastic cutbacks over the past few years and this has inevitably lead to a reduced capacity to carry out such a large volume of tests at such short notice.

Chris Elliott said, “When a massive scare such as this occurs trying to find labs capable of carrying out hundreds, if not thousands, of complex tests is difficult. The major bottleneck is having suitable staffing levels to perform the testing and having those available trained to the required standards.”

In GB, Fera is responsible for testing all Government samples taken for the presence of veterinary medicine residues and is therefore playing a pivotal role in the ongoing bute investigations. Matthew Sharman is keen to emphasize how being well prepared has enabled his team to manage the increased workload as a result of the horsemeat scandal. “Fera routinely tests over 30,000 samples a year for veterinary medicines. Although we are seeing an increase in the demand for bute testing, we are used to carrying out such tests on a day-to-day basis and react by reprioritizing our resources accordingly.”

Food Safety v. Food Authenticity
Food scandals which have dominated headlines in the past, such as milk containing melamine in China, mad cow disease (BSE) in the UK and ground beef containing ammonia (pink slime) in the USA, have been so prolific due to associated health implications. However, to date there is no clear evidence that horsemeat is detrimental to health. Health experts continue to insist that the main issue is one of food authenticity and not food safety.

With this said, since much of the trade in horsemeat that has been passed off as beef is believed to involve criminal activity, there are fears that those running the trade will have ignored food safety and hygiene regulations. Currently the major concern is whether bute has entered the food chain. Mary Creagh recently caused a major public scare when she declared that bute causes cancer in humans.

In reality it appears that the risks associated with horses treated with bute are in fact very low. Chris Elliott commented, “There is no scientific evidence to say that bute causes cancer in humans. The calculations are that you would have to consume huge quantities of horsemeat for bute to have any kind of detrimental effect on humans. With the main focus being on bute, many other pharmacologically active substances that are frequently used in horses seem to have been overlooked.”

The Wider Problem of Food Authenticity
Ultimately it is the responsibility of the retailer to ensure the authenticity of the food sold. This, however, is not as straight forward as it may seem. The recent increase in food fraud is a direct result of the increase in the complexity of food supply chains. Longer food chains, combined with tighter economic conditions, have provided an incentive for unscrupulous operators to defraud the system. The current systems rely heavily on trusting paperwork that comes with shipments.

Like many other experts in the food industry Chris Elliott believes that the horsemeat scandal is merely the tip of the iceberg and many other types of food fraud occur on a regular basis: “People will be looking out for these in the next few months and I would not be surprised if there are a few more examples that hit the press.”

Future Implications of the Horsemeat Scandal
Further incidents of food fraud are going to do little to restore consumer confidence, which makes the challenge for the retailer even greater. The main challenge for retailers is determining how to establish sufficiently robust programs for so many different foodstuffs, and still remain competitive.

Simplifying food supply chains and consequently reducing the potential for food fraud, appears to be an obvious solution, but this is often easier said than done. Simplified food chains are likely to be more expensive and may not meet the supply demands of all the retailers. While consumers continue to demand food at a low cost, the quality and authenticity of the food is likely to remain compromised.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has called for a Europe-wide overhaul of food testing. While companies that specialize in testing food ingredients are currently gaining from the increased scrutiny of meat products, the longer-term effects on business will depend on the sustained response by the industry and regulators. Whether there will be an increase in investment for food research in the future remains to be seen.

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