Irish and British food safety authorities are investigating the discovery last week of horse meat in beef burgers sold in leading supermarkets.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister of agriculture and food, said production at a meat plant linked to the burgers was suspended pending an investigation and assured members of the European Parliament’s environment and food committee that safety was a priority.
“I want to emphasise one thing because this is important,” he said. “There is absolutely no food safety issue here. This is about traceability and a labelling issue to ensure the consumers.”
“Most countries in Europe eat horse meat all the time,” he continued, “so let’s not create a significant problem here that [doesn’t] exist.”
Coveney was backed by European Commission spokesperson Frédéric Vincent, who said there was no food safety problem with finding horse meat in burgers.
But the Parliament Committee members did not see it that way and raised questions about the horse meat issue that has made Ireland the brunt of jokes and stoked concerns about ingredients in packaged foods.
German MEP Dagmar Roth-Behrendt (Socialists and Democrats) said the incident shows the need for tougher content and safety labels on food as well as a broader policy on electronic tagging of livestock – tracing technology that can expedite food safety investigations.
Past legislative efforts to strengthen EU labelling and require tagging have proven controversial, with critics saying they inevitably lead to higher food prices for consumers.
“Maybe if people stop buying beef burgers, something will happen,” said Roth-Behrendt, who called for additional labelling legislation on content of meat products.
"Without labelling, we give an open door for people to cheat - yes, it is cheating," Roth-Behrendt told Coveney, who appeared before the committee to discuss farm and fisheries policies under Ireland's six-month presidency of the EU Council.
In 2011, the European Parliament approved labelling laws that included requiring the display of a product’s country of origin.
But the legislation was criticised by consumer groups because the rules do not compel manufacturers to labels on the front of food packages as first proposed. It also postponed country-of-origin labelling for diary products and meat in processed food until after the European Commission concludes impact studies in 2013 and 2014.
Bending to opposition from British farmers, the Parliament approved legislation last September that called for voluntary tagging of beef cattle.
Coveney said British and Irish food safety agencies were cooperating in the burger probe. He said trace levels of other products can often show up during DNA testing of meat.
“This is forensic testing that can pick up tiny, tiny traces that could have represented cross-contamination either in a butcher’s or a supermarket, or in transportation or in a factory that has used similar production lines for pork one week and maybe beef the next week.”
But more than traces were found in packaged burgers sold in Irish and British markets, some containing up to 29% of horse meat.