Learning lessons from the horsemeat scandal

Photo Neil Cross'Analyst Amy Calderbank carrying out DNA tests at Lancashire council's Public Analysts laboratory as part of the investigation by the Food Standards Agency into the horsemeat scandal

Photo Neil Cross'Analyst Amy Calderbank carrying out DNA tests at Lancashire council's Public Analysts laboratory as part of the investigation by the Food Standards Agency into the horsemeat scandal

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The Food Programme (BBC Radio 4) revisited the horsemeat scandal eight months on, to examine what we now know happened and what might have changed for the better.

As you may remember, back in February we learned that horsemeat had been found in frozen and ready meals, ranging from traces in many products to 60% of the meat content in the case of one brand of Asda lasagne. Their findings were not very reassuring.

Firstly, the complexity of the supply chains supporting the provisioning of meat in our ready meals were mind boggling and a million miles away from the bucolic image of fresh farm food projected on some of the packaging.

The Food Programme traced horses being transported from Ireland to England for slaughter, shipped 
as horsemeat to Holland where the meat was minced, mixed with fatty beef mince and then transported frozen back to Ireland where it was utilised in ready meals that were sold in Ireland and the UK.

Through the alchemy of fraudulent labelling and EU cross border shipping, Irish horsemeat was transformed into lean “beef” mince.

Secondly, the great potential for food fraud and contamination inherent in these deconstructed versions of dishes that used just to be a way of using up leftovers from family meals, was very obvious.

Everyone in the journey from field to fork was a victim apparently, not just us, the consumers.

Buck (or should it be stallion) passing is the inevitable consequence of such a convoluted food chain, where just sourcing the meat for the ready meal involves animals, carcasses and processed meat being transported from country to country before it even becomes an ingredient in a food factory.

Accountability disappears and only a raft of regulations and inadequate controls remains – prey to the next fraudster who comes along.

And finally no one has yet been prosecuted for one of the biggest food frauds of recent times. 6 months after the story disappeared from our news radar, the regulators (FSA) and courts are still trying to piece a case together that will stick.

On the positive side, most supermarkets now routinely DNA test ready meals for horsemeat and the Grocer magazine reports that sales of frozen ready meals are still down.

But DNA testing for “alien meat” content only works for known risks – what about unknown unknowns and the scope for other contaminants entering such a complex and essentially ungovernable food chain. So what is the answer – more controls? Governments and regulators will say yes. But then they would wouldn’t they, that’s the business they are in.

A far better alternative is simplified food chains and a more DIY approach to our meals. Short, direct, trusted food chains and more processing by ourselves at home i.e. go to someone you know and trust and then cook a meal yourself.

Berwick Slow Food Group believes in establishing as direct a connection with those that raise or grow our food as possible.

That is why we stage our annual food festival at The Barracks – to connect you with those that produce your food and give you some new ideas on how you might cook it.

In the same spirit, this weekend we are giving you the opportunity to visit Peelham Farm at Foulden. Peelham are a local livestock farm producing and marketing their own pork, beef and lamb.

They even have their own on-site butchery and charcuterie.

○Graham Head is the leader of Berwick Slow Food group.