It is no surprise that the horsemeat scandal continues to preoccupy the mainstream media. As laboratories equipped to carry out meat speciation tests work around the clock to meet demand from the food industry, the scale of the problem is becoming a little clearer. It seems that quantities of horsemeat have somehow entered the supply chain masquerading as beef and have been widely distributed all over the EU, but relatively few products appear to have been affected. The likely reason for the adulteration looks like criminal fraud rather than human error or systemic failure. Horsemeat prices are currently little more than a quarter of those commanded by prime beef, so that a financial motive for the substitution is pretty clear.
Thankfully, no direct evidence of public health or food safety concerns has yet surfaced, although questions about meat traceability and the integrity of supply chains remain to be answered. That integrity seems to have been compromised rather too easily for comfort. It is possible that the incident will result in tighter regulation and it will certainly prompt some of the big names in food manufacture and retailing to look again at the supplier assurance systems they have in place.
I hope it will also serve to focus some attention on laboratory testing as a useful tool for monitoring the food supply for adulteration and contaminants. In the UK and elsewhere, many of the laboratories used for enforcement testing have been starved of funds or closed, while budgets for surveillance have been cut. Meanwhile industry has been outsourcing testing and concentrating it in a few large labs. The current problems suggest that this process may already have gone too far. The adulteration was discovered by a small surveillance exercise in Ireland, without which it could have gone undetected for much longer. Lest we forget, it was the presence of 29% horse DNA in a single sample that started the alarm bells ringing. HACCP, food safety audits and hygiene accreditation schemes are undoubtedly better than sample testing as means of ensuring food safety and quality, but laboratories still have an important supporting role. Supplier assurance measures can help prevent contamination entering the food chain, but when something goes wrong it is routine laboratory analysis that is most likely to detect the problem.