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Horse meat committee hears audits are flawed

By Joe Whitworth , 22-Feb-2013
Last updated on 26-Feb-2013 at 13:50 GMT

A retired meat inspector has called the audit system a “disgrace” and said it is in need of a “total review” in evidence given to a UK government committee dealing with horse meat.

Giving written evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Paul Smith a retired inspector with 43 years of experience in the meat industry said, there is a “massive failure” of “multiple retailers” to monitor suppliers through appropriate inspections at appropriate intervals.

The suppliers (the auditees) can select which “approved inspection body” they use. They also pay for the audit. Yes, they can pick which audit company, the alleged policeman, they wish.

“In practice, they also pick which auditor by heaping praise on them followed by request for same individual next visit.”

Inspection responsibility

He said retailers put a Food Supply Standard together called The Global Standard for Food Safety and “farmed out” inspection responsibility to third party bodies that the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) approved.

He said the inspection is a “graded result” type of exercise with Grade A being the target and to achieve this only a small number of non-conformances can be identified and none can be major.

It is reasonable to want to avoid repeat audits of suppliers by each retail multiple, added Smith.

“However, it is the BRC, the multiple retailer representative body, who should employ the inspectors and not commercial companies who are profit-driven and that can be selected at will by suppliers depending on their perceived weakness/toughness.”

Product list growing

Meanwhile, a Birds Eye product sold in Belgium, Chilli Con Carne, produced by Frigilunch N.V., has tested positive for horse DNA.

As a precautionary measure in the UK and Ireland the firm said it will withdraw Traditional Spaghetti Bolognese 340g, Shepherd’s Pie 400g and Beef Lasagne 400g from the same supplier.

"Whilst this is not a food safety issue, it is clearly unacceptable," said a statement.

"We want to reassure you that there is no evidence from our DNA testing and audit programme that any other Birds Eye products are mislabelled."

Earlier in the week, three samples of beef burger products from catering supplier The Burger Manufacturing Company (BMC) were also positive for at least 1% horse meat after testing from Powys County Council.

Health risks of low concern - survey

The results of an online consumer study after the announcement by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) on 15 January that horse and pig DNA were found in beef burgers, found health risks were not consumers’ first concern.

Results showed that consumers were mainly concerned that the claims on labels did not match the contents of the products, in the study as part of the FoodRisC EU project.

“There was very little evidence of concern about health risks – although some wondered how government assurances about safety could be so conclusive given that the discovery of horsemeat was completely unexpected,” said the report.

“There were a lot of questions about the testing process. Consumers wanted to know whether the tests were routine and if not, what prompted them.”

Other issues raised included how the contamination could have occurred, for how long it had been going on and what would happen to the burgers withdrawn from supermarkets.

Consumers wanted to know who would be held accountable and what would be done in the future to prevent such contamination happening again.

Trust dips

Meanwhile, Canadean Custom Solutions research found that 38% of UK consumers are less trusting of their main supermarket.

UK shoppers are considerably more likely to "blame" the supplier of beef products (88%) as opposed to supermarkets (12%), said the study.

More than half said they were “sceptical” about the quality of meat stocked in their main supermarket.