The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and representatives of the food industry in the United Kingdom agreed to conduct testing of meat products and publish the results “to provide a clearer picture of standards in the food chain,” the agency announced February 4. Some grocery chains have also announced their own new DNA testing regimens. The tests are being implemented in response to the identification of horse and pig DNA in beef products in the U.K. and Ireland.
The contamination events first came to light in mid-January, when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced that, in tests of 27 beef burger products, 10 were positive for horse DNA and 23 were positive for pig DNA. The products testing positive for horse DNA came from two processing plants in Ireland and one in the U.K. and were on sale in grocery outlets in Ireland and the U.K. including the Tesco and Aldi chains. Although in most cases the horse DNA was present at low levels, horsemeat in one sample from Tesco accounted for 29% of the product, according to a January 15 FSAI statement.
All retailers removed the potentially affected products from their shelves, according to the FSA and FSAI, and the processing plants recalled affected products. Alan Reilly, chief executive of FSAI, noted that the findings posed no risk to public health or food safety. He acknowledged, however, that the incident raised other issues.
“In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horsemeat, and therefore we do not expect to find it in a burger. Likewise, for some religious groups…the presence of traces of pig DNA is unacceptable,” he said in the FSAI statement.
And indeed, the FSA subsequently announced that traces of pork DNA had been found in meat pies labeled as halal and served in U.K. prisons. Under Islamic law, Muslims are required to eat halal food, and consumption of pork is forbidden. The food distributor 3663 announced February 5 that the “very small number of Halal Savoury beef products” supplied by McColgan Quality Foods Limited, of Northern Ireland, had been withdrawn from supply.
By January 28, the FSAI had determined that the source of the equine DNA was “meat imported from Poland as raw material for the production of burgers.” The FSAI said in a statement that it had notified Polish authorities.
On February 6, the FSA published a testing protocol, specifying analytical techniques to be used to collect information about the presence of horse or pig DNA in beef products available to U.K. consumers. Local authorities across the U.K. will use the protocol to test 224 samples and will publish the results, according to an FSA statement.
ABP Food Group, owner of two of the processing plants implicated in the contamination, announced on January 16 its own new testing regime, including DNA testing, for all meat products. Tesco also announced its own DNA testing regimens.
A February 1 joint statement by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the U.K.’s Association of Public Analysts (APA) called Tesco’s announcement “welcome news,” but said it highlights a growing problem: diminishing funding for enforcement of food standards in the U.K.
“Food sampling carried out by local authorities and analysis on those samples carried out by Public Analysts for the purposes of enforcing food law has been in decline for over 10 years,” said Duncan Campbell, a public analyst and past president of the APA, in an e-mail to Food Quality. “If the number of enforcement inspections and the amount spent on analysis continue to decrease, the chances of such incidents reoccurring will increase.”