Food Contamination - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

2  Tests and traceability

5. In our previous Report we discussed the different types of tests used to identify the presence of horse or pig DNA in beef products at high (gross) and low (trace) levels of contamination.[5] This chapter focuses on the tests commissioned after the initial findings, the results of those tests and the results of investigations into identified incidents of contamination.

The testing regime

6. Three sets of tests were carried out on frozen and processed beef products sold in the UK market. The FSA requested local authorities and industry to carry out tests, and the EU requested Member States to carry out additional tests.

7. The first set of tests was requested by the FSA on 6 February. This testing took place across 28 local authorities in two phases: the first tested 224 samples of raw minced beef products including burgers, minced beef, beef sausage or meat balls, all of which were checked for horse and pork DNA; the second phase tested 140 samples of beef-based ready meals including frozen, chilled or canned lasagne, chilli con carne, cottage pie, ravioli, cannelloni and spaghetti bolognese, all of which were checked for horse and pork DNA. The results of these tests were published at the end of May on the FSA website.[6]

8. On 7 February the FSA asked the food and retail industry to conduct extensive tests on a wide range of processed beef products. These industry test results were reported to the FSA and published on their website on a weekly basis from 15 February 2013. Some 5,430 tests had been completed by 1 March, covering the majority of product lines in the manufacturing, wholesale, retail and catering chain.[7] Testing by industry continued after this point with an additional 19,050 test results submitted. Around 15,000 of the new results were provided by a single company, the ABP Food Group.[8]

9. The third set of tests was announced by the European Commission on 21 February. It requested every Member State to carry out tests on a specified number of samples of beef products for the presence of horsemeat and, on horses taken to be slaughtered for human consumption, for the presence of phenylbutazone (bute).[9]

10. For the EU-mandated tests, the UK tested 150 samples of beef products from 24 local authorities and submitted the test results to the European Commission. The tests included products marketed or labelled as containing beef as a major ingredient; for example, minced meat, meat products and meat preparations. Products such as gelatine, beef dripping, stock cubes, steak, stewing steak and ready meals which contain beef were also included. The results of these EU tests were published on 16 April. The UK also tested 836 samples of horsemeat for the EU and the results are discussed in the following chapter.

Test results and consequences for the processed beef sector

11. Of the 364 local authority tests, three products tested positive for horse DNA above the agreed 1% threshold and three for pork DNA.[10] The 5,430 industry test results up to 1 March revealed 44 positive tests for horsemeat above the 1% threshold.[11] The UK undertook an additional 150 tests for the European Commission and none was positive for horse DNA.

12. The FSA commented that "the results from the industry testing were consistent with the local authority testing programmes, confirming that the adulteration was limited to a relatively small number of products." It reported:

    As at 23 April 2013, a total of 24 products in the UK were identified as containing horse DNA at or over the 1% threshold. The results indicated that, in both the industry and local authority testing, over 99% of all samples tested did not contain horse DNA at or over the 1% threshold.[12]

13. Across the EU Member States a total of 4,144 beef products were tested for horse DNA. The Commission reported that 192 beef samples, or approximately 4.66% of the total, contained positive traces of horsemeat.[13] The largest number of positive tests was identified in products on sale in France, followed by Greece and Denmark.[14]

14. Mr Heath commented that "we now have a very clear view about what is going on with beef products in the UK market, with an unprecedented level of testing."[15] He pointed out that while in the UK 99% of beef product samples tested negative for horse DNA, there was a slightly higher level of contamination in European products, although this was not of a different order.[16] Joanna Darmanin, of the Commission, commented on the EU level of contamination saying that while it was only 5%, it was "5% too much, [...] but nevertheless it remains rather limited in its scale."[17]

15. It is thought that the main cause of the contamination is fraud. Mr Heath told us:

    it does seem to me that there was deliberate fraud involved, that that was carried on a pan-European scale, and that we do still need to accumulate the evidence from across the European Union, not just in this country, as to exactly who was doing what and who was aware of what in the process.[18]

The FSA also said the contamination was a result of fraud: "I do not think there is any evidence that this is a labelling issue. It is a fraud issue, and a composition and authenticity control issue."[19]

16. The British Meat Processors Association commented that:

    all the evidence to date regarding the instances of gross contamination points to fraud—unlawful behaviour on a serious scale, but in a comparatively small number of product lines and supply chains. We look to police authorities to find and prosecute the perpetrators. There is not a systemic breakdown of the meat supply chain; it would be misleading and would not serve the best interests of consumers or the food industry to suggest this in any way.[20]

There are obvious concerns within the processed meat industry about the consequences of this level of fraud in a sector which should be highly regulated for food safety reasons. The Chair of the BMPA told us: "Undoubtedly, these incidents of gross contamination have undermined consumer confidence and trust in our industry and have caused reputational damage to it."[21] BMPA suggested that when the media interest had diminished, it would be important "for all parties in the food industry, together with government and regulators, to sit down to identify the sensible way forward".[22] Peter Kendall, Chair of the NFU told us: "I think it is a common feeling among the farming community across Europe that this is something that has real potential to damage our reputation, so I think there is widespread concern and anger at what has happened."[23]

17. In the UK, figures for the four week period to 12 May show that while there was a 37.1% increase in the volume of fresh burger sales, frozen burger sales fell by 16.2 % and frozen ready meals by 12.6%.[24] In its response to our Report the Government said "consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label. It is completely unacceptable that consumers have been buying products labelled beef, but which turn out to contain horsemeat."[25] A survey by Mintel reports that "only 42% of consumers, taken from a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults, believe the food industry can react to major food scares effectively, while less than a quarter believe that different elements of the supply chain work effectively together."[26]

18. Joanna Darmanin, Head of the Cabinet of the European Commissioner for Health and Sanitation said of the situation across the EU:

    What we have witnessed and what we have been told is that, clearly, the readymade meals have indeed suffered. That is where they felt it most. However, for example, if you take fresh meats from butchers, it seems that prices have gone up. Indeed, let us say they were the winners in this situation, if you can use the term "winners" in a situation of this manner.[27]

19. We asked Mr Heath how he planned to help restore confidence to the frozen and processed meat sector. He said that people should be reassured that "the vast majority of processed meat that was on sale was perfectly as it should be [...] I can only applaud the fact that people are tending to buy British meat products, which they know they can trust."[28]

20. The horsemeat contamination has been a result of fraud and other criminal activity across the EU. While overall contamination of beef products has been small, it has been widespread across EU Member States, and caused much public concern. We agree with the Government that consumers must be able to purchase products confident that the product is what it says on the label. We note that there has been an increase in sales of fresh meat from butchers, coupled with a significant reduction in consumer confidence in the frozen burger and beef ready meal sectors in the UK. We recommend that the Government hold talks with those affected—including farmers, food business operators and retailers—to develop a plan for restoring confidence to this sector before the end of the year.


21. All the tests on beef products reported here have been for horse or pork DNA at a level of 1% or above. However, some of the initial test results from Ireland pointed to lower levels of contamination. This 'trace' contamination is of a different order than, for example, the burger which was found to contain 29% horsemeat. Trace contamination is thought to be caused by "carry over" between processing of different types of meat using the same equipment. The Local Government Association explained that trace levels of contamination normally result from cross contamination and that the law did not specify what level of cross contamination was acceptable:

    Food labelling law does not specify the levels of DNA contamination that would be acceptable. In the case of horsemeat adulteration there are no established levels above which deliberate adulteration is agreed, however, a DNA test can detect relatively low levels that result from cross contamination rather than adulteration.[29]

22. We had previously raised the issue of trace contamination of Halal and Kosher beef products with pork.[30] The Government said it was not responsible for private marketing standards and that there were no specific regulations governing the sale and labelling of Halal or Kosher meat; certification was provided by private organisations.[31] Since then the FSA has said it will consult the public on levels of acceptable contamination, and the Government has commissioned some research on how best to assess and measure low-level contamination[32]. We request that the Government update us on the results of work streams on trace contamination in meat products in its response to this Report.


23. Because our food system is complex—with ingredients being sourced from many places and traded by different people—the ability to trace the supply chain of a product, for example from the farmer to the retailer, is an important component of the food system. However, the more complex a supply chain is, the more difficult traceability becomes.

24. EU regulation 178/2002 introduced traceability requirements to all food businesses. They must be able to identify the business which supplied them with a food or food ingredient, and the businesses to which their products have been supplied. The Commission describes this as the "one step back, one step forward" approach and it covers all type of food and feed ingredients. The Commission explained the system:

    Within the food chain, [there is] a general obligation that a company receiving raw material should know where the raw material comes from and document that. They should then prepare the product, and when the product is sent to another, they have to know the destination.[33]

25. However, there are still significant knowledge gaps about the point at which horsemeat entered the production cycle of beef products. This implies that accurate records were not being kept throughout the supply chain of those beef products found to contain horsemeat. The FSA told the Committee that a 50,000 tonne consignment of beef from a factory in the Netherlands had been withdrawn because the Dutch company could not identify the source of the meat:

    The difficulty the Dutch authorities experienced is that there were very few, if any, records held by the companies they were investigating, which is why the Dutch issued, in effect, a blanket rapid alert about 50,000 tonnes of meat. They could only say who had been supplied by this company at any point in time. They were unable to trace any of the actual meat itself.[34]

26. We were assured there were good systems in place for traceability in the UK. Mr Finnerty of ABP Foods, for example, told us he operated to the highest standards in terms of traceability of product, in line with the rest of the industry.[35] He went on to explain that frozen food had greater opportunities for being contaminated:

    I would like to demonstrate the difference between chilled beef and frozen beef. For chilled beef [...] the supply chain is very short. We try to procure two-thirds of our cattle from within a 30-mile radius of each of the facilities we use. [...] It is a process that takes a matter of days and a short number of weeks. Frozen food is different. It is a product that has a lifespan of up to two years, and the raw material that is bought is much more commoditised. [...] it tends to go through many hands.[36]

27. Although Mr Finnerty said ABP had "never knowingly bought, ordered or processed any horsemeat," he was unable to identify at what point horsemeat had entered the supply chain for the Tesco beef burgers which were supplied by the Silvercrest factory of ABP Foods. These contained up to 29% horsemeat. Mr Finnerty said he thought the origin of the horsemeat was Poland.[37]

28. The results of tests across EU Member States has revealed that the nature of the food supply chain for processed beef products can also be long, and may include many different food business operators from different Member States.[38] This has made tracing the source of the contamination difficult. Mr Heath commented on this saying:

    These are complex cases. Something that has been very clearly demonstrated during the process of this investigation is the complexity of the supply chains across Europe and the number of different operatives, some of whom may be aware of what they were buying, while others may not have been[39].

Peter Kendall, from the NFU, suggested that shorter supply chains would help restore confidence:

    We are [...] looking for shorter supply chains, closer working relationships between farmers and their end users. I have been quite clear in asking, why cannot supply chains be simple? When I say "simple", I mean farmer-processer-retailer/shop. Why does it have to involve crossing many borders, with lots of traders in between? I have quite clearly made the analogy: this is not nuts and bolts, this is not a mobile phone, this is our food. Why does it have to change hands so many times to try to save money?[40]

He also gave some examples of how shorter supply chains had improved traceability in some products and reduced the opportunities for fraud.

29. The system for food traceability, including the requirement that at every stage in the supply chain operators must keep records of the source of each product and its next destination, has been breached. Retailers and meat processors should have been more vigilant against the risk of deliberate adulteration. Trust is not a sufficient guarantee in a system where meat is traded many times before reaching its final destination. We are concerned about the length of supply chains for processed and frozen beef products and welcome efforts by some retailers to shorten these where possible.


30. After police raided two premises in north Wales and Yorkshire and suspended production, the Minister said: "if there is evidence of criminal activity, I will expect the full force of the law to be brought down on anyone involved".[41] Two men had been arrested and were later released on bail.[42] To date there has been no prosecution in the UK, or in Ireland, where the alleged fraud was first identified.[43]

31. Jim Fairbairn of Freeza Meats told us he had been asked to store a consignment of meat for another trader in Northern Ireland in December 2012. This was later found to have been contaminated with horsemeat. However, it is not yet clear where the horsemeat originated.[44] The Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine published its Report on Equine DNA and Mislabelling of Processed Beef Investigation in March 2013.[45] The Report listed the results of a number of investigations including the case of Silvercrest of which it concluded that "there was no evidence that they deliberately purchased or used horsemeat in their production processes or that these companies were relabelling or tampering with inward consignments."[46] It expressed concern about the actions of meat traders and intermediaries and reported that information has been passed on to the relevant authorities and the European police co-ordination body, Europol.[47]

32. The Government refused to comment on ongoing investigations in the UK saying "that is obviously a matter for the police and for the courts and not for Government ministers."[48] At the end of April, Professor Reilly, head of the FSAI told us: "We are awaiting the outcome of what is essentially a criminal investigation, so I really cannot comment on when the results of that investigation will come to fruition."[49] The European Commission told us:

    as available information indicates the possibility that intentional violations of food chain rules might be taking place, other enforcement authorities are also concerned with investigation and enforcement activities. In several Member States criminal investigations are on-going.[50]

33. The evidence we received from retailers and food processors in the UK and Ireland suggests a complex, highly organised network of companies trading in and mislabelling frozen and processed meat or meat products in a way that fails to meet specifications and that is fraudulent and illegal. We are concerned at the failure of authorities in both the UK and Ireland to acknowledge the extent of this and to bring prosecutions. We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity.

5   A beef product refers to food items where beef is an ingredient, and not fresh beef. These products may be processed (for example, ready-made beef meals) and/ or frozen (for example, frozen beef burgers) Back

6 Back

7   Ev 87 Back

8 Back

9   A drug used on horses which is banned in the food chain. Back

10   Level agreed by FSA with industry on 11 February. The FSA website said: "We've asked industry to test for horse DNA down to a level of 1%. There are two reasons for this. First, that's a pragmatic level above which we think any contamination would be due to either gross incompetence or deliberate fraud; it's not going to be accidental. Second, some laboratories can only test accurately down to a level of 1%."  Back

11   The total number of test results positive for horse includes multiple tests on individual affected products where, for example, that product has been supplied to more than one retailer.  Back

12   Ev 87 Back

13   European Commission, Recommendation 2013/99/EU, Reporting Complete, State of Play, 07/05/2013 Back

14   European Commission, Recommendation 2013/99/EU, Reporting Complete, State of Play, 07/05/2013. It should be noted that while the UK submitted the requested 150 samples, France submitted 353 samples.  Back

15   Q 627 Back

16   Q 627 Back

17   Q 530 Back

18   Q 647 Back

19   Q 506 Back

20   Ev 94 Back

21   Q 43 Back

22   Ev 94 Back

23   Q 161 Back

24  "Fresh burger sales initially fell but then rose again from March 2013", The Grocer, 10 June2013. Back

25   Contamination of Beef Products: Government Response, p 11 Back

26   "Tesco hires farmers' voice to restore trust lost in horsemeat scandal", The Guardian, 3 July 2013 Back

27   Q 600 Back

28   Q 699 Back

29   Q 24 Back

30   Contamination of Beef Products, paras 36-39 Back

31   Contamination of Beef Products: Government Response, p 9  Back

32   FSA, Report of the investigation by the Food Standards Agency into incidents of adulteration of comminuted beef products with horse meat and DNA, pp 7-8, July 2013 Back

33   Q 560 Back

34   Q 463 Back

35   Q 65 Back

36   Q 66 Back

37   Qqs 59, 66; Ev 96 Back

38   A simple supply chain for a beef burger consists of the farmer, abattoir, processor and retailer. More complex supply chains might involve raw meat being traded by more than one agent.  Back

39   Q 628 Back

40   Q 165 Back

41   Hansard, 14 February 2013, col 1047 Back

42   Q 455 Back

43   Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Equine DNA and Mislabelling of Processed Beef Investigation, March 2013. We have been told that prosecutions have taken place in France and the Netherlands. Q 541 Back

44   The consignment originated in Poland but Mr Fairbairn did not know from which company. Qqs 325, 330  Back

45   Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Equine DNA and Mislabelling of Processed Beef Investigation, March 2013 Back

46   Equine DNA and Mislabelling of Processed Beef Investigation, p 4  Back

47   Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, Equine DNA and Mislabelling of Processed Beef Investigation, March 2013.  Back

48   Q 630 Back

49   Q 198 Back

50   Ev 104 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 16 July 2013