EU begins month of intensive DNA tests for horsemeat

Burgers horsemeat.jpg

The EU has begun one month of extensive DNA testing on food products, after companies found horsemeat in numerous beef dishes.

European leaders agreed to the testing plan, which EU countries can extend for a further two months, in a bid to determine the sequence of events which led to the horsemeat scandal. The Commission expects the first results by 15 April.

Tests will also check horsemeat for potentially harmful drug residues, after six horses slaughtered in the United Kingdom tested positive for the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, or bute, which EU law bans from human consumption.

“I believe that only the strictest and most complete transparency can begin to repair the damage done to the consumer's confidence”, EU consumer and food safety commissioner Tonio Borg said at a hearing on the scandal in the Europe Parliament on Thursday (28 February).

EU law ‘not at fault’

Borg told EU lawmakers that despite the “irrational” reactions to the horsemeat scandal, the EU has one of the best food safety systems in the world.

The commissioner said the EU reacted immediately to the discovery of the mislabeled beef products and further legislation would not prevent all cases of fraud in the future.

“It is easy to jump to conclusion that the legislative system is at fault, but the reporting was immediate”, he said. “So the legislation is sound.”

Borg said the EU’s rapid alert system for food safety was to thank for the fast reaction to the crisis, with the first reported discoveries in Ireland releasing a chain of new tests and discoveries throughout Europe.

“The moment there were issues in Ireland and the UK it was immediately transmitted to the member states. All examples were reported immediately”, he said.

Dissuasive penalties

The European Commission is considering a proposal to review the rules on official controls across the food chain. The new regulation would require EU countries to impose financial penalties for intentional violations of food-chain rules, whether there is a health-risk or not “at a level which offsets the financial gain sought through the violation.”

However, a number of MEPs questioned Borg’s response to the crisis, calling for more stringent controls to ward against future fraud.

British Labour MEP Linda McAvan, a member of the environment, health and food safety committee, expressed dissatisfaction with the EU’s announcement of further random inspections and one month of testing, saying it did not go far enough.

“How many random inspections? How systematic? How many member states are cutting back [during the crisis]?”, she asked the Commissioner.

“It seems to me that we don't know now for how long people have been mislead with mislabeled horse meat, because it was just picked up in a random test. And you are going to test for a month; we don't know what's going to happen after that month; how can we know it won't happen again if we don't have a new system for testing in place by member states? There is a sort of idea that nothing is wrong with the system, but I don't think that's the view of many consumers”.

Corinne Lepage, a French liberal MEP, said: “It's very easy to come up with legislation and just giving it to member states to apply and control themselves. But we all know that everyone is cutting their budgets at home, having less and less civil servants and agents responsible for verification and controls. So that makes our legislation virtual and citizens want real and not virtual legislation”. Lepage questioned the Commission’s position: “It is a bit facile to say the world is full of criminals so we can’t do anything about it”.

Glenis Willmott a British MEP of the Socialist and Democrats European Parliament group said: "It is a supply chain that is extremely complex, and if manufacturers have to be more vigilant because they have to label the country of origin on the meat they use in processed food maybe we will be in a different position. They have to take their responsibility seriously, the confidence is gone down, and sales of ready meals have gone down. So there is an economic case for them to do it. So manufacturers actually do checks on country of origin for meat in processed food, and they have been doing for some time. So if they can do it, why can't everybody else?"

Austrian MEP Richard Seeber of the European People’s Party group said: “How controls take place should come from the European legislator.” He called for the EU to keep the costs of food safety controls in check.

Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes asked: “Can member states carry out inspections, given the cuts? Which member states are doing well and which not doing well? The Commission is making savings too. Staff and funding cuts mean restricting the quality of controls.”

The scandal of horsemeat in products labelled as beef has spread across Europe since early January, prompting product withdrawals, consumer concerns and government investigations into the continent's complex food-processing chains.

A fifth of adults said they had been buying less meat as a result of the discovery, according to a poll conducted by research company Consumer Intelligence published on 18 February.

The scandal broke when Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA), a British government body, gave food companies a week to test all their beef products upon discovery of the mislabeled products. The UK agency instructed consumers to return the Findus lasagnas and Tesco burgers as a precaution, but said there was no evidence to suggest that horsemeat itself was a food safety risk.

  • 15 April: First reports on month-long DNA testing regime.

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