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Policies & Issues: Food

Horsemeat Q&A
How could this have happened?

Retailers are extremely disappointed this has happened. We work closely with consumers and suppliers to ensure all products are accurately labelled. This includes clear specifications to suppliers on meat used in products backed up by traceability and auditing. Unfortunately in a small number of cases this has not prevented horsemeat entering our supply chain. The large number of tests on products has shown this is not a widespread breakdown of the system and is probably due to deliberate fraud but we operate on a zero tolerance basis and are determined to both identify affected product and ensure it doesn't happen again.

Why weren't you testing for horsemeat?

We routinely test for a number of issues to ensure food safety. We also routinely test for the % contents of meat in products but as horsemeat is not sold in our products would not routinely test for it. We do change testing regimes regularly based on intelligence from both the food industry and FSA to prevent contamination but there was no indication that horsemeat was an issue. One of our key issues for review on this incident will be how we improve intelligence, particularly at a European level.

What tests are you carrying out?

As soon as we were notified of the incident in mid January our members began an intensive testing programme to identify where horsemeat is in a product. This covers all processed minced beef products, regardless of where the meat was sourced or the product manufactured. We estimate our members will have tested close to 2,000 product lines when this is completed which means thousands of DNA tests in approximately six weeks, probably the biggest testing exercise of its kind. We are sharing our results with the FSA.

What are the tests?

These tests can identify the DNA of different animals in a product. There are two main testing methods. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test relies on short synthetic pieces of DNA (DNA Primers) selectively binding to the target DNA sequence. These primers act as starting points for a new DNA copy that is constructed by an enzyme called DNA polymerase. Qualitative PCR tests can identify the percentage of DNA in relation to the overall meat content.

The other commonly used test is an Enzyme Linked ImmunoSorbant Assay (ELISA), a technique used to detect the presence of proteins in a sample by stimulating the production of species specific antibodies and measuring the response. This test will tell whether a product has a level of DNA above 1% but cannot give a precise figure of content.

All these tests are carried out by accredited laboratories.

Why test to 1%?

This follows FSA advice that a 1% threshold is appropriate for accurate testing and is a pragmatic level to distinguish between gross contamination or adulteration, and ‘trace' levels of carry-over from one species or product to another.

What are the results of the tests?

On Friday 15 February we published the first set of results for BRC members covering the supermarkets and a number of other food businesses. These covered 65% of all the products to be tested which we have deliberately skewed towards those products closest to those identified in the original incident. From 1,052 DNA tests only 5 products contained more than 1% horsemeat DNA.

On Friday 22 February we published updated test results which showed a total of 1,508 DNA tests have now been completed covering 92% of the processed minced beef products that retailers set out to test. Results to date show only 6 products have tested above the FSA threshold for horse meat.

Retailers will be publishing the remaining results as soon as possible.

What action has been taken?

As soon as a product is suspected of containing horsemeat it has been withdrawn from sale and all five products with levels above 1% have been recalled. Those companies affected have taken swift action to remove these products and been very clear with consumers in terms of the products and action taken.

What next?

We set a zero tolerance approach to clear labelling and will not accept 0.5% of our products failing that test. We will review our approach to traceability, management of our supply chains, the use of testing and crucially the way in which intelligence can be improved and shared to prevent potential criminal threats to our supply chain.

We will also be very clear on our testing regime and share our results regularly with the FSA. However the best testing is always intelligence led to identify issues and test for them so we will encourage FSA to take a lead with other Member States in improving the exchange of intelligence across Europe.

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