Horsemeat crisis puts food safety on Irish agenda

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Food

The horsemeat crisis had made Irish shoppers far more aware of food safety concerns, according to the FSAI report
The horsemeat crisis had made Irish shoppers far more aware of food safety concerns, according to the FSAI report
The horsemeat crisis has made Irish shoppers far more aware of food safety concerns and significantly changed their buying habits, according to new research from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).

Half of Irish shoppers said they were more conscious about food safety problems after beef and other meat products were contaminated with horsemeat.

More than half (53%) said they were more conscious of the ingredients in manufactured food products, while 56% reported paying more attention to food products’ country of origin. A further 45% said they spent more time reading food labels.

Nearly all adults (98%) said they were aware of horsemeat crisis. Almost three quarters (72%) said they were confident about the effectiveness of Irish food safety controls and regulations. Only 13% said they were not confident and 15% were unsure.

While the horsemeat crisis presented no direct challenge to food safety, concern initially focused on the contamination of horsemeat with the veterinary drug phenylbutazone or bute. Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh told the UK Parliament in January that bute was a known carcinogen​”.

But Andrew Rhodes, operations director of the Food Standards Agency, told FoodManufacture.co.uk’s webinar – Horsemeat: learning the lessons of an avoidable crisis​ – that the horsemeat crisis presented no challenge to food safety.

Shoppers’ buying habits

Meanwhile, the FSAI research revealed the crisis had significant changed Irish shoppers’ buying habits. More than half (51%) of shoppers who bought frozen burgers before the crisis now bought fewer such products, while about 48% bought the same amount. 

But of those who bought processed foods containing meat – such as lasagne and shepherd’s pie – 56% reported continuing to buy the same amount. 42% said they bought less after the crisis.

Buying habits for fresh burgers were broadly unchanged, with 69% buying the same amount, 16% buying less and 15% buying more.

Professor Alan Reilly, FSAI chief executive, FSAI said the horsemeat crisis had highlighted the importance of effective food labelling.

Food safety and labelling

“Understandably, the issue has given rise to widespread debate about food safety and labelling and this has changed the way people in Ireland view the foods they purchase and consume,”​ said Reilly.

“When buying processed foods, people are not in a position to identify what raw materials are used and, therefore, they rely on labelling as their only source of information. They are in effect putting their trust in the hands of manufacturers and retailers who have a legal obligation to ensure that all ingredients in their products are correctly labelled.”

A key lesson for food businesses was that they must have robust supplier controls in place to ensure that they know who is supplying them and that all products and all ingredients are authentic, continued Reilly. 

“Purchasing raw materials on face value is a high risk strategy for food processors. Progress has already been made with enhanced controls and sophisticated tools such as DNA testing now being a part of the food safety armoury,” ​said Reilly.

The eventual outcome of the horsemeat scandal will be a positive one for consumers, he predicted.

The FSAI survey​ was carried out by Behaviour and Attitudes, based on responses from 1,003 adults in Ireland.

The authenticity of food supply chains will feature in Food Manufacture’s​ Food Safety conference to take place at the National Motorcycle Museum, near Birmingham on Thursday October 17.

Taking part in the one-day conference will be Rhodes, Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at consumer watchdog Which?, Professor Tony Hines from Leatherhead Food Research and a host of other experts speakers.

More details about the conference – plus the early bird discounted ticket price – are available here​.

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