Retailers, food manufacturers and meat processors face stringent controls to ratchet up standards following the scandal that has seen millions of beef products adulterated with horsemeat.
DNA tests, spot checks, meat inspections and the strict enforcement of labelling rules are all under consideration as the government seeks to rebuild consumer trust in multinational companies that simply don’t know what is contained in their food products.
Responsible livestock farmers already jump through hoops to guarantee the quality of their beef. And quality beef is what consumers expect. But it is the middle of the food chain – the processors, brokers, dealers, manufacturers and retailers – who have let farmers and consumers down.
Many farmers will be forgiven for seeing it as a comeuppance for a sector that has effectively bypassed the assurance standards met by responsible British livestock producers and instead sourced cut-price “beef” of dubious origin.
More than 10m burgers have been withdrawn from supermarket shelves since varying levels of contamination were uncovered last month. But the problem took on a new dimension when imported Findus beef lasagne was found to contain 100% horsemeat.
Changes in consumer attitudes following the horsemeat scandal have implications for supermarkets, manufacturers and the government, says Lloyd Burdett, of the Futures Company, a subsidiary of market research consultants Kantar.
“We would expect to see a changing attitude towards processed meat in the short term. People will find it hard to trust meat, unless they can see, feel and touch it. Trust in the retailers will have been damaged because they manufacture their own- label products. Even before this scandal we were seeing an increased desire for transparency and for brands to ‘keep it real’ from consumers and that is likely to become stronger now. This scandal adds to the idea that big business is not looking out for the consumer.”
There has also been a growth in feelings of “active distrust” towards big companies, says Mr Burdett. “The government is likely to get some of the blame for this scandal because consumers don’t know what they can do, and feel reliant on the government to regulate.”
There will also be a segment of consumers who may have been turned off processed meat completely, Mr Burdett believes. “At the moment, we are told the horsemeat poses no health risks – if that was to change we would expect to see a much bigger impact.”
Supermarkets caught up in the horsemeat scandal should be ashamed of themselves, says Dorset beef farmer John Hoskin.
“There is no way you can sell a product as cheaply as they have been doing,” explains Mr Hoskin. a former Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year. “It was obvious they were importing cheap beef – which was unlikely given the global beef shortage – or that things weren’t right and they were buying a beef substitute.
“I would be taken to court if I sold a car with 50,000 miles on the clock and it had really done 100,000 miles. The same needs to happen here. I feel very strongly about it. They should be heavily fined – something like £1m rather than a slap on the wrists.”
“Supermarkets preach the importance of traceability, but where is it? Some of the labelling on the products they bought wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. If I had made a similar mistake I would have been heavily penalised and rightly so. Those are the rules of the game.
“Consumers rightly expect to be eating beef when they buy something that says beef. They certainly don’t expect to be eating horse. The product must be what it says on the label. The supermarkets need to be put in their place.”
Longer supply chains – where meat is bought, sold and processed many times as it passes from farmer to consumer – are under most scrutiny, simply because there is more opportunity for things to go wrong and adulteration to take place.
“We agreed that more and tougher testing will take place,” said DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson after talks with retailers before travelling to Brussels to meet ministers from 16 other European countries where contaminated products have also been sold.
The National Beef Association wants the country of origin to be clearly stipulated on the label of all products containing beef. But European health commissioner Tonio Borg believes it is too early to require labelling on meat used in processed foods.
The first results from DNA tests ordered by the Food Standards Agency on thousands of meat products are due today (Friday 15 February). As further results become available, Mr Paterson has warned the industry to brace itself for more contamination cases.
Criticised for cutting back on inspections, the agency has also commissioned a programme of unannounced visits to stand-alone cutting plants. Red meat will be prioritised before white meat, and premises giving cause for concern will be inspected first.
In the longer term, NFU president Peter Kendall believes the scandal is a lesson for those who have relentlessly tried to drive cost out of the food chain at farmers’ expense. “Retailers and processors have to think about sustainability – it is something we’ve been saying for a long time,” he says.
The problem for retailers is that setting up a dedicated beef supply chain takes time. “It isn’t something that can be done overnight,” says Mr Kendall. “We think setting up a designated milk supply chain is complicated enough but doing the same for beef is probably a four-year process.”
Tesco has its own dedicated beef producer club, sourcing cattle directly from British and Irish farmers. These producers send fully assured cattle to approved abattoirs in what the supermarket acknowledges is a “complex chain”. This fully traceable meat is then sold in Tesco stores.
Guaranteeing the provenance of convenience foods and ready-meals has proved to be more of a challenge. Stung by bad publicity after its economy burgers were found to contain up to 29% horsemeat, Tesco rapidly introduced a DNA testing programme across its meat products.
The testing programme is expected to cost £1-2m annually – a cost the supermarket insists will not be passed back to farmers. “It will be a significant investment for Tesco, borne by Tesco,” says Tim Smith, the retailer’s technical director.
The ABP Food Group, which owns Irish processor Silvercrest where horsemeat contamination was first reported, says it is determined to ensure adulteration never occurs again. The company has pledged to become an “industry leader” in DNA testing procedures.
“We also have effected a group re-organisation to better manage our convenience foods business,” says ABP Food Group chief executive Paul Finnerty. “We have put in place new procedures to audit all our third-party suppliers.”
A spokesman for Morrisons – which has not suffered any contamination issues – says shorter supply chains could help minimise the risk of problems. “You have more control over what is happening, where the meat is going and tracing it back,” he told Farmers Weekly.
That view is echoed by David Clarke, chief executive of Assured Food Standards, which oversees the Red Tractor scheme. “What is becoming evident is that the problem is the very long and convoluted supply chain.”
Whether the sector will be weaned off cheap meat remains to be seen. But Mr Clarke says food manufacturers would be foolish to continue buying it. “It makes more sense to spend a little bit more money on assured British beef than spending lots more money on DNA tests.”
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