Wednesday, 23 January 2013

‘Horsegate’ – moving forwards

Inevitably, ‘horsegate’ has dominated the headlines over the last week following the discovery of 29 per cent horse meat in value beef burgers sold by Tesco.

From the social media ‘pun fest’ to national newspaper front pages and urgent questions being asked in the House of Commons, the issue can’t have escaped anyone’s attention.

As the dust begins to settle, we can start to look at the ramifications and what can be done to prevent it happening again. Firstly, we need to see the outcome of the investigation into what happened and how it happened. Accidental one-off, poor practices or fraud? Once we know that, we can see if anything can be done to stop it happening again. Undoubtedly, clearer labelling on meat products to aid consumer choice and highlight greater transparency is needed to safeguard long-term consumer confidence in beef and lamb products.

One of the main disappointments lies in the fact that farmers adhere to strict guidelines on production, only to be potentially let down further up the supply chain. Amid this frustration, the NFU has rightly suggested that that retailers need to re-examine sourcing and labelling policies in the wake of the affair.

Only by implementing clearer, simpler labelling will consumers be able to identify provenance and exactly what’s in the product they are buying, with all ingredients clearly labelled. But this should not apply exclusively to the quality end of the market. In the current economic climate a significant proportion of consumers look to the lower value meat products. While it is accepted that these products are unlikely to contain as high a proportion of beef, lamb or pork than the more expensive ones, the same labelling principles should apply – the contents still need to be clearly labelled on the packet to ensure consumers are fully aware of what they are buying.

Assurance marks on packs, like the Red Tractor logo or our own Quality Standard Mark (QSM) for beef or lamb, give a level of reassurance on where a product is from and that it has been produced to clearly defined standards. While QSM is independently audited and robust, this incident has prompted us to look at launching an additional failsafe with a pilot random DNA testing programme to underpin the QSM. This isn’t being done because we expect to find other meats in QSM products or believe there is a risk, but it will act as another check and reassure consumers.

So, we await with interest the outcome of the investigation into how horsemeat found its way into value beef burgers. Only then can we look at how best to move forward to ensure there is no lasting damage to the sector.