News of horse DNA in the economy beef burger ranges of some major retailers raises serious questions around corporate food governance, government monitoring and the implications for public confidence. 

Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland were forced into recalls in the UK and Ireland last night after food safety officials published test results showing traces of horse meat in some ranges of beef burgers.

The officials, who were conducting routine auditing for Ireland’s Food Safety Authority (FSAI), also found pig DNA in beef ready meals, like lasagne and cottage pie.

FSAI and its sister agency in the UK, the Food Standards Agency, have spent today trying to get a grip on the extent of the problem and where the chain of traceability snapped in the food supply network. It might yet prove an isolated case, but expect officials to spit hairs over companies’ book-keeping.

There are no public health risks, according to FSAI, and it should be noted that horse meat is eaten by choice in several countries.

Choice, though, is the key word. Many consumers of the named products would be justified in feeling misled given that horse meat was not labelled and is also deemed culturally unacceptable across the UK and Ireland. Pig meat, too, is unsuitable for some ethnic and religious groups. 

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Accusations could well fly in many directions. The UK’s main opposition party is already asking why the government’s food agency has had to rely on Irish colleagues to spot the problem – albeit, at least FSAI did spot the problem.

Meanwhile, the public will blame the government and the retailers, who will blame the suppliers, who, in-turn, will likely grumble about mistakes getting through due to stringent margin pressure from retailers, while also potentially pointing the finger at whoever sold them the raw material. There is already a suggestion that the meat in question may have come from elsewhere in Europe.

“This is an illustration of how food systems work on trust,” said professor Tim Lang, of City University London’s Food Policy Centre.

“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,” he told just-food today (16 January).

There is natural concern among retailers and government officials. Although it was not named by the FSAI inquiry, Asda said today that it has taken a precautionary measure to pull some products that come from the suppliers pin-pointed as the source of the affected beef.

Tesco’s share price slipped by around 1% in morning trading today after it recalled two lines of frozen beef burger products.

Joseph Robinson, lead consultant at analyst group Conlumino, told just-food that the issue could damage Tesco’s recent efforts to improve consumer confidence in its ‘everyday value’ private label brands.

“It’s not as serious as it could have been,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as bad as the Bernard Matthews [H5N1] problem a few years ago, and nobody’s been poisoned at the moment, but the ramifications come down to perceptions of retailers and particularly of private label brands.”

It remains too early to ‘call’ the consumer reaction.

All the retailers named by FSAI moved quickly to allay public concerns, pulling products, offering refunds and emphasising their concern for safety and quality. In a particularly strong-worded statement, Tesco’s global technical director, Tim Smith, 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.” The retailer also apologised to consumers for “any distress”.

A spokesperson for Mintel told just-food that its market research shows “almost two fifths of meat, seafood or poultry users want detailed information on where the protein comes from”.

Any shopper concerns are likely to benefit “from-scratch-cooking”, Mintel believes.

Shore Capital analysts today noted that the issue might “temporarily or otherwise damage the reputation and so sell through rate of processed meats such as beef burgers”.

They added: “We’d imagine that an awful lot of testing of meat products containing imported ingredients are going through laboratories as we write.”

On a more positive note, the analysts said that the case could highlight the UK’s relatively high animal welfare standards. “If the industry and public officials ever needed a hook to pin their hats on this issue of national provenance then this could be one,” they said.

This leads back to perhaps the most pertinent question of all: how did the undeclared meat content sneak through the supply chain?  

“If fraud and adulteration are found, it’s a sign that standards are either stretched or weakening,” warned professor Lang.