The discovery of horse DNA in beef burgers caused something of a media storm in Ireland and the UK last week, generating some lurid headlines and branding the incident a full blown scandal. The outrage expressed was more the result of cultural objections to undeclared horsemeat in something labelled as a beef product than any justified concerns over health. Horses are just not considered to be food animals in either country and the anger was quite genuine.
But when one looks at the facts it becomes apparent that much of what was written by the press on the issue was ill informed at best and alarmist nonsense at worst. For instance, almost all of the samples tested showed tiny trace amounts of DNA from non-bovine sources. This is consistent with inadvertent cross contamination somewhere in the supply chain rather than deliberate adulteration, or fraud. Indeed the Irish authorities have commented that more research is needed to determine whether cross contamination is unavoidable at very low levels. Much more serious was the single sample of a Tesco product that returned a result indicating that 29% of the beef burger was in fact horsemeat. This is now being investigated by the Irish and UK authorities, and until the investigation is complete we won’t really know what that result means. It may indicate deliberate adulteration, but that is not the only possible explanation.
One thing we do know is that there is no threat to human health and no safety concerns – both the Irish and UK authorities have said so very clearly. Or do we? As Dr Duncan Campbell, the former head of the UK Public Analysts Association, commented in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, “Until we know what the source is of the ‘horse’ or ‘something derived from horse’ that has been found in the beef products, we cannot be sure there is no food safety risk.” Dr Campbell’s doubts may be justified. The very fact that products on sale in a large supermarket chain contained an ingredient of unknown origin should set alarm bells ringing over the integrity of the supply chain and raise serious questions about traceability. In other words, if horsemeat can be present and go undetected by quality and safety assurance systems, what else might find its way into the food supply?