Suffolk: Horse DNA in burgers scandal prompts surge in demand for local meat

Lady Caroline Cranbrook

Lady Caroline Cranbrook - Credit: Archant

THE horsemeat-in-burgers scandal has prompted renewed interest in locally-produced meat.

Suffolk-based local food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook said her own poll of local butchers showed the furore over the shock DNA discovery in some cheap-end processed meat products supplied to supermarkets in the UK and Ireland was already having a marked effect.

Tests on beef products sold in Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores uncovered low levels of horse DNA after 27 products were tested, with 10 found to contain horse DNA and 23 pig DNA.

“I had a ring round six of our east Suffolk butchers and they all reported increased sales of mince, some as much as 50%, and also from new customers who would normally have got it from the supermarket,” said Lady Cranbrook.

“Our butchers get their meat from local suppliers. They make their own mince and burger mince from the offcuts of the carcases they have bought from them. The mince is 100% beef, with usually not more than 10-15% fat, which will have been part of the meat before it was minced.

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“All the ones I have talked to can tell you the farm from which the original animal came. This meat is truly a value product when compared with the mass-market mince and burger mince, which often has about half as much beef in it.”

But she stressed that where the mass market is concerned, the majority of all supermarket meat is fully traceable and the problem occurred at the cheapest ‘value’ end of the market, where checks had not been sufficient.

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“Meat, especially beef, must have a transparent supply chain. We must know from what countries, what species and what parts of the animal the meat comes from. If it is mechanically recovered meat (MRM), this should be stated,” she said. “An element of the mass market meat is no longer fully traceable. This has to change. Following BSE we now have a complex, highly regulated passport system for our cattle. But this is inevitably undermined if the raw, processed meat used for mince, burgers, ready-meals, kebabs, etc comes from unknown animals with unknown provenance. It is a disgraceful anomaly.”

Blythburgh pig farmer Jimmy Butler said UK meat producers had to go through “every check that’s going” when the scandal showed supermarkets had bought processed products without full knowledge of what they contained. With the EU’s decision to outlaw tethered pigs, he feared illegally-reared pork from less well regulated countries could slip into the supply chain undetected, as a DNA test would not uncover this.

“How can anyone have confidence in what they are saying when they go and do this to the consumer?” he said.

Caroline Allen, Green Party animal welfare spokesperson, said given the multiple crises affecting our food supply chains it is not surprising that cheap filler ingredients make their way onto supermarket shelves.

“The relentless rise of food prices- including feed price for animals -means that processors will have to be increasingly inventive to continue to provide the cheap food the supermarkets require.

“Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns mean that recent price rises are probably the beginning of a long term trend. At the same time massive cuts at the Food Standards Agency have left it hardly able to provide its most basic duties regarding food safety and traceability. The work they carried out on issues such as food labelling and nutrition has all but ceased, at a time when it is most desperately needed.

“With inadequate policing of this massive industry these scandals will continue. It is surely time for a regulator of the supermarkets and food processors with real powers, a well funded body properly monitoring what is being placed in processed food. But more importantly we need to relocalise the food chain; reducing waste, improving traceability and supporting our farmers- creating a system of food production with resilience in face of the challenges of a changing climate.”

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is calling on all UK retailers to address their sourcing and labelling policies following the revelations of tests which discovered horse DNA in burgers.

NFU President Peter Kendall said: “The events of the past few days have severely undermined confidence in the UK food industry and farmers are rightly angry that the integrity of stringent UK-farmed products is being compromised by using cheaper imported alternatives which, evidence suggests, do not meet the robust traceability systems we have in the UK. Farmers are equally concerned that the high standards and traceability they have to meet through farm assurance are not being upheld throughout the supply chain.

“What is particularly concerning is that this revelation comes at a time when farmers are under enormous pressures and consumer confidence is low. Retailers will know they must take immediate action to address both the integrity of all their suppliers, and at the same time ensure that UK products are easily distinguishable and clearly labelled.

Clearer labelling on meat products to aid consumer choice and demonstrate greater transparency is needed to safeguard long-term consumer confidence in beef and lamb products, said Nick Allen, EBLEX sector director, in the wake of the “horsegate” scandal.

He welcomed the NFU view that retailers need to re-examine sourcing and labelling policies and said there was a high level of frustration among farmers who adhere to strict guidelines on production, only to potentially be let down further up the supply chain.

“Co-mingling of meats of different country of origin has been repeatedly raised by consumers as a concern in recent years,” he said.

“We would support calls for clear, simple labelling and welcome a debate on the issue. Origin is important to people. They want to know provenance and exactly what is in the product they are buying. While it is accepted that lower value meat products are unlikely to contain as high a proportion of beef than at the quality end of the market, the contents still need to be clearly labelled on the packet.

“We would encourage consumers to look for the assurance marks on packs, like the Red Tractor logo or the Quality Standard Mark (QSM) for beef or lamb, which give a level of reassurance on where a product is from and that it has been produced to clearly defined standards.

“Our own QSM scheme is independently audited and remains robust. However, in the light of this incident coming to light, we are looking at introducing random DNA testing to beef and lamb produced under our scheme as an additional failsafe.

“We await with interest the outcome of the investigation into how the horsemeat found its way into value beef burgers. We can then look at making sure it cannot happen again.”

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