British and European governments have been advised to “think like criminals” in the battle to uncover how thousands of tonnes of beef products came to be contaminated with horse meat.
As the tangled web of meat distribution behind products on UK sale widened to include Romanian abattoirs, a French meat processor and Dutch and Cypriot traders, an expert from Leatherhead Food Research told FoodManufacture.co.uk the authorities had to think like criminals to beat the fraudsters.
Speaking on Friday (February 8) Professor Tony Hines, head of food security and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research (LFR), advised the authorities to focus on the parts of the meat chain where the opportunities for fraud were the greatest.
“The authorities should think like criminals by asking: what can we dilute and what can we mix to make me the most profit,” he said.
“If I were inspecting a plant where beef is minced, I wouldn’t expect to see horse in there. Someone, somewhere has seen this opportunity to mix things [horse meat and beef] together – to bulk up minced beef. After all, where do horses go when they die?”
Following Hines’ comments, the quest to find the source of the European source of contamination switched over the weekend from Poland to two Romanian abattoirs – reported to process both beef and horse meat.
French investigations have revealed that French firm Poujol bought frozen meat from a trader in Cyprus. The Cypriot trader had bought the meat from a Dutch firm, which had sourced the material from two Romanian abattoirs.
French food minister Guillaume Garot told the news agency Agence France Presse: “We want to get the latest from the whole range of people involved in the food chain on what has happened.” That was necessary in order “to learn the first lessons”, he added.
Romanian president Traian Basecu told the BBC that if horse meat had been falsely labelled as beef, the country’s reputation would be seriously discredited and its economy damaged.
Later today (February 11), environment secretary Owen Paterson is expected to face a grilling by MPs, as he updates Parliament on investigations focusing on the theory European criminals may be responsible for the scandal.
“I’ve got a nasty feeling it’s actually a criminal conspiracy,” Paterson told BBC News.
“It looks as if the problem is limited to processed food and it looks as if there has been criminal substitution of beef with horse.”
Paterson added that a ban on EU meat imports into the UK, as suggested by some, would be illegal under EU law.
Meawhile Lord Haskins told BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme that the food chain was overly complex and minced beef had always been a dangerous area.
“The chain [of meat supply] is far more complicated than it should be and meat has been a perilous product for ever,” said the former chairman of Northern Foods. “This has to be simplified.”
Haskins went on to warn about the pressures to “cut corners” within the food manufacturing sector. “Findus has gone into private equity and then new investors will be keen to get the costs down. Management will be tempted to cut corners.”
Last week, Findus withdrew from sale beef lasagne, made by the French processing firm Comigel, after some were revealed to contain 100% horse meat .
Richard Lochhead, Scottish cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment, said he had agreed with Paterson. “The issue surrounding horsemeat remains one of mislabelling and potential fraud with there being no evidence of any implications for human health.
“It is unacceptable that consumers are being misled and this cannot be tolerated.”
Food safety expert Dr Jo head told us that the horse meat scandal had now become so great that only a public inquiry could quell consumers’ concerns.
"We have reached a crossroads in terms of confidence in the food industry. We need a public inquiry to restore confidence in the food chain," she said.
Last June we reported Hines’ advice that food technologists should start thinking like criminals if they were to spot illegal activities in their supply chains that could lead to serious food fraud.