As the Food Standards Agency of Ireland (FSAI) investigates how horse and pig DNA entered beef burgers, Retail Week takes a look at the revelation and its implications for retailers.

Why are we talking about this now?

Tesco and Iceland in the UK and Lidl, Aldi and Dunnes Stores in Ireland have been found to be selling beef burgers containing horse and pig DNA. The majority of the samples contained traces of the DNA however in one sample of a Tesco Everyday Value beef burger horse was 29% of the meat.

The FSAI has asked retailers involved to provide comprehensive information and is also considering whether to take legal action against the companies at the centre of the scandal.

The matter was discussed in the House of Commons this morning where environment minister David Heath said the issue of horse DNA being found in beef burgers was “extremely serious”. The FSAI has explained the state of play.

How has this happened?

The news has shocked the retail industry and consumers alike. A number of stringent tests and checks have existed throughout the supply chain for decades and which were considerably tightened since the BSE crisis in 1996.

Shoppers have become far more interested where their food comes from and certification marks such as Fairtrade, Soil Association organic and Red Tractor have emerged to tell shoppers about food’s origins and make up.

Several processors including – Silvercrest Foods, Dalepak Hambleton and Liffey Meats - have been named as suppliers of the products at the centre of the scandal, however speculation is mounting that the meat was brought in to the UK from the Continent.

One theory, put forward by beef and lamb sector trade board Eblex is that the DNA could have been in a technical product used to bind the meat together into a burger however head of trade development Peter Hardwick warned this would only explain the 0.03% horse meat samples and not an amount as large as 29%.

The FSAI investigation will hope to trace both the origin of the meat and how it was combined with beef. There has also been specualtion the burgers could have been in contact with machinery or transportation legitimately used to process or transport horse and pig meat.

One supplier said: “When supermarkets select their suppliers they do very thorough spot checks and study products carefully, I would be very surprised if the issue occurred in the UK or Ireland.”

How does the supply chain work?

Meat supply chains can be complex however products arriving in the supermarket are usually reared on a farm, slaughtered in an abattoir, packaged as single products (e.g. chicken breasts) or processed with other ingredients to create meat meals (e.g. ready-made lasagnes). The processing can, in some cases, be done separately to the packing. The products are then delivered to the supermarkets regional distribution centres and then on to the supermarket shelves.

How is this monitored?

Stringent checks are in place throughout the EU via a number of bodies. The European Food Hygiene Directive stipulates that food standards bodies in each EU country hold responsibility for checking products originating from that country.

Most packhouses in the UK sign up for voluntary BRC accreditation as supermarkets rarely trade with suppliers without them while products carrying the Red Tractor logo are from farms which have been subject to food quality audits to guarantee farm assurance.

Supermarkets, as well as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also carry their own audits. The food standards agencies in the UK and Ireland carry out both routine and spot checks into individual products and test DNA while meat processors are also required to do regular microbiological tests to ensure products are fit for human consumption. However, as Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke stressed, the issue is not a food safety one as horse meat is edible.

How have retailers handled it?

Retailers have moved quickly to quash a potential PR disaster. Tesco and Iceland quickly released statements and the former’s chief executive Philip Clarke released a blog apologising to customers for “falling short” with its products and assuring them that all the lines have been pulled from shelves.

Fellow retailers Asda, The Co-operative and Sainsbury’s have also pulled their beef burgers as a precautionary measure. Morrisons, meanwhile, has used the opportunity to its advance, stating that it has a close handle on its supply chain as it owns its own farms and abattoir. Philip Hudson, head of food and farming at National Farmers Union, says: “This could be very damaging for the image of retailers and farmers who have carefully built up trust in their brands and products.”

How much is this the responsibility of the retailer? Could it be as a result of putting pressure on the supply chain?

Hudson believes that all elements of the supply chain are responsible. He says: “Ultimately retailers are the major interface with customers and it’s in the interest of their brand and brand values to ensure quality products reach the shelves. Farmers, packers, processors and retailers all have to take responsibility for their point in the supply chain.” Hudson says that downward pressure on the supply chain to cut costs to allow them to reduce prices is commonplace.  

However, Manchester Business School retail analyst and former Asda and Tesco executive Tarlok Teji does not believe this would cause a supplier to cut corners in this area. “This is not about cutting corners,” he says. “It is rare that manufacturers would risk losing a multi-million contract with Tesco. It is far more likely that somewhere down the line something has accidentally gone wrong.”

How can this be prevented from happening again?

Until the source of the problem can be located it will be very hard to prevent this from happening again however checks are likely to be stepped up in the immediate term.