How’s your beef burger? Champion.
Bad jokes aside, the scandal about horse meat in burgers should not be used to smear the entire food industry.
When it comes to cheap meat products, it’s probably best if you don’t know what you’re getting. When the name of the game is to use up all the ‘nasty bits’ that are perfectly edible but not necessarily terribly attractive, ignorance is bliss. In recent weeks, however, that ignorance has been rudely interrupted by the discovery of pork and horse meat in beef products.
On 15 January, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced that samples of beef products taken from three companies – Silvercrest and Liffey Meats in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in England – were contaminated with various amounts of other meats. The FSAI said: ‘A total of 27 beef burger products were analysed with 10 of the 27 products (37 per cent) testing positive for horse DNA and 23 (85 per cent) testing positive for pig DNA. In addition, 31 beef meal products (cottage pie, beef curry pie, lasagne, etc) were analysed, of which 21 were positive for pig DNA and all were negative for horse DNA. All 19 salami products analysed tested negative for horse DNA. Traces of horse DNA were also detected in batches of raw ingredients, including some imported from The Netherlands and Spain.’
The presence of a small amount of pork (0.3 per cent) in products made in plants that handle both pork and beef seems explicable, if still concerning. After all, producers should know exactly what is going into their products. However, the presence of horse meat was impossible to explain legitimately – especially when the sample of one product, Tesco Extra Value Burgers, contained 29.1 per cent horse DNA.
The scandal has rumbled on as a variety of different meat-product producers and sellers have rushed to test their own products. Last Thursday, it was reported that Burger King UK had found traces of horse meat in its burger patties from the Silvercrest plant but had found no such traces in burgers at its branches. However, Burger King immediately switched production to Italy and Germany to be on the safe side.
Over the weekend, it emerged that supposedly halal pies supplied to the UK prison service by catering giant 3663 contained traces of pork. Since pork is forbidden for the very people the pies were intended for – Muslim prisoners – this is a serious matter. The producer of the pies, McColgan’s Quality Foods, from Northern Ireland, was quickly dropped by 3663.
No doubt the scandal will grow as more food products are tested. (Another Irish manufacturer, Rangeland Foods, suspended production on Monday after finding horse meat in raw ingredients from Poland.) The whole affair will also be a kick in the proverbial rump for food sellers who may have become complacent about the products they were selling and who now have reputations to restore. That said, a little perspective may be in order. For most people, who are sensible enough to realise that cheap burgers are unlikely to be made from the finest steak, the fact that Tesco Extra Value Burgers actually contain 63 per cent beef may be the biggest shock of all. (The other ingredients are mostly onions, a bit of flour, soya protein and seasoning. Not haute cuisine, but perfectly nutritious.)
What have we learned? Well, it turns out that horse meat is cheaper than beef. It’s also perfectly fine to eat – there’s no evidence of anyone being made ill in this whole affair – and highly prized in some countries. Indeed, given the quality of horse meat, perhaps companies should start selling horse burgers as a low-cost, nutritious alternative to beef.
On the other hand, food suppliers should know what’s going into their products and it is unacceptable that these products were adulterated with ingredients that were not on the label. It is quite right to demand high standards. There should be no excuses that these were, in many cases, ‘only’ budget or fast-food products.
What we cannot conclude, however, is that this is an indictment of our modern food system, as some have tried to claim. Unless you actually grow your own food, you can never know for certain where your food comes from. The bigger the scale of the industry concerned, and the longer the supply chains, the greater the opportunity for someone along the line to reduce the quality of the meat or, in this extreme case, to introduce another meat altogether. What is remarkable – and reassuring – is that food standards are maintained to such a high degree that the occasional story like this one can still make national news.
Food adulteration has been going on for decades. That’s why inspections, possible prosecutions and the threat to companies’ brand reputations play an important role in disincentivising adulteration. For example, Silvercrest, the main company in this horse meat affair, has lost an enormous amount of business overnight and will struggle to recover its reputation. That’s a powerful deterrent for anyone else thinking of cutting corners or not keeping a close check on their own suppliers.
But the attempt to smear all large food producers as mendacious fat cats who will stuff any old crap into our food is wide of the mark. Small producers, who are often make niche products to sell at a higher price, have just as much incentive to be economical with the truth about their products. That’s especially true when, as in the case of organic food, there is no physical difference between the specialist product and the conventional, lower-cost version. Whether we buy from the farmer’s market or the mega-corporation, we have to take a lot on trust. In the vast majority of cases, for big and small producers, that trust is well placed.
The anti-Big Food story, however, suits the outlook of a certain kind of middle-class food campaigner, the sort that hates mass production and mass consumption. Never mind the evidence that the long decline of food prices thanks to large-scale production has been an enormous benefit to us all. Instead, such minor scandals play into the conspiratorial outlook of the supermarket haters who believe that big companies are out to get us. Sadly, the most badly adulterated thing of all is the modern discussion about food.