The UK's Food Standards Agency has said it will consider taking legal action over the discovery of horse DNA in some beef burgers on sale in several retailers in the UK and Ireland.

The UK's food safety watchdog is urgently investigating how traces of horse meat could have found their way into burger products.

Officials have given those retailers and suppliers involved until the end of this week to "provide comprehensive information" on what happened. The agency added that it will consider legal action against those it deems guilty of wrongdoing.

Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Iceland and Ireland's Dunnes Foods have all recalled burgers after they were named in a Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) study, which found traces of horse DNA in ten out of 27 beef burger samples. The agency also found pig DNA in several ranges of beef ready meals.

One burger sample, from Tesco, showed horse meat made up 29% of declared 'beef' content. Today (17 January), Tesco issued fresh apologies to shoppers via adverts in most of the UK's national newspapers.

Although not implicated, rival retailers Sainsbury's and Asda have also recalled beef burger products from the same suppliers, as a precaution.

On the question of legal and regulatory implications, professor Tim Lang, of City University London's Food Policy Centre, told just-food yesterday: "Firstly, is it fraud? No label declared the horse meat or traces of pig DNA. Secondly, it appears to be adulteration, a cheaper meat being substituted for a more expensive one. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, this exposes failings in commercial food governance."

In response to a question in Parliament yesterday from Laura Sandys MP, UK prime minister David Cameron called the situation "extremely disturbing".

"[The FSA] has made it clear that there is no risk to public safety, because there is no food safety risk, but this is a completely unacceptable state of affairs," he said.

The FSAI has traced the meat to three suppliers: Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods in Ireland, and Dalepak Hambleton in the UK. It is thought the meat may emanate from continental Europe.

Show the press release

As the next step in the investigation into the results of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland survey of beef products, the Food Standards Agency has met this afternoon with representatives from the food industry (producers, processors and retailers) from all parts of the UK.

The meeting explored the reasons that could have led to a number of beef products on sale in the UK and the Republic of Ireland containing traces of horse and pig DNA. Industry representatives confirmed the existing processes that they follow to ensure that the products that reach consumers are of the highest standards. These include quality controls in place at all stages of the food chain. They also set out the actions that they have already taken in response to this incident.

It was noted that there are two distinct types of case:

  • In all but one of the cases, the levels of horse and pig DNA were extremely low.
  • In the one exceptional case, the level of horse meat accounted for 29% of the meat content.

The causes of these two problems are therefore likely to be different and the focus of the investigations into the causes will be different.

The FSA has now set out a four-point plan for its investigation, which it will be implementing in conjunction with other Government departments, local authorities and the food industry:

1. To continue the urgent review of the traceability of the food products identified in FSAI’s survey. The retailers and the UK processor named in the survey have been asked to provide comprehensive information on the findings by the end of Friday 18 January.
2. To explore further, in conjunction with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the methodology used for the survey to understand more clearly the factors that may have led to the low level cases of cross-contamination.
3. To consider, with relevant local authorities and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, whether any legal action is appropriate following the investigation.
4. To work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the devolved rural affairs departments and local authorities on a UK-wide study of food authenticity in processed meat products.

Original source: http://www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2013/jan/horse-update#.UPgJ5HfQP7A