Food safety conference

Horsemeat crisis to spark next food fraud, says FSA

By Michael Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety conference Food standards agency United arab emirates Food safety

The horsemeat crisis could carry the seeds of the next big food fraud, said FSA boss Andrew Rhodes
The horsemeat crisis could carry the seeds of the next big food fraud, said FSA boss Andrew Rhodes
The next major food fraud crisis may arise from the shortages of premium meat cuts sparked by the horsemeat scandal, warns the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Andrew Rhodes, FSA chief operating officer, told Food Manufacture’s​ Food Safety Conference last week stronger demand from meat-hungry Asian consumers was creating shortages that are proving fertile territory for food fraudsters.

“One thing to come out of the horsemeat crisis was the 'Buy British' message,”​ said Rhodes. “But 50% of what we eat is imported, so we are not producing enough food to be able to buy British.”

Demand was greater than supply – particularly for proteins. “China is buying up a lot of meat because meat is a product of affluence. New Zealand is now supplying a lot more lamb to China and the United Arab Emirates and to other eastern states and supplying less to this country.

“That means supply is shorter and the price is higher, which means we have seen and have been looking for the adulteration of lamb products. The price differential is something that is going to drive some ​[fraudulent] behaviours.”

28% increase in food fraud

Since the horsemeat crisis, the FSA had detected a 28% increase in food fraud, as consumers and the industry became more aware of the potential for adulteration.

“I know that at least one of the very big caterers is struggling now to maintain their buying habits because so many others are buying up British-produced products. So, if all the big guys buy all the British stuff, where are the small guys – with weaker or possibly non-existant traceability – going to get their products from? Risk transference is something we need to be very cognisant of.”

Rhodes admitted that the FSA did not anticipate the horsemeat crisis but could have done so – with the benefit of specialist knowledge. “We didn’t see horsemeat coming but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have seen it coming.”

Look for contamination

The facts that beef prices were high and demand was outstripping supply were well known. But the FSA would have needed to have known where to look for contamination in a complicated supply chain.

“We would have needed to know that difficulties around transmittable diseases from midges in Romania, led to the stopping of exports of Romanian horses to EU countries and the start of them being slaughtered at home instead,”​ said Rhodes. “Then, we would need to have known that the meat was largely going to northern and north-west European countries where horsemeat is routinely used. We would have needed to have known or suspected that some people were taking that product and using it to adulterate beef products.”

Also, the Irish authorities detected gross contamination in one burger during one 40-minute testing window. To find the right 40-minute window – based on their operating hours – they would have needed to have carried out 28,000 DNA tests at the right intervals to find those batches at a cost of about £90M, he said.

Rhodes predicted that origin labelling, backed by isotope testing, would become more important.

'The biggest news story in food'

“Aside from some incident happening, the thing that will be the biggest news story in food in the coming year will be the origin of food itself and the label related to that – whether it is really British or not,”​ said Rhodes.

“Isotope testing is going to change the landscape again and I’m not sure what it is going to do to confidence. It is unlikely to be a safety issue but people will question safety nonetheless.”

While a food traceability problem was not necessarily a food safety problem, it could become one, said Rhodes.

The Food Safety Conference took place at the National Motorcycle Museum, near Birmingham, on Thursday, October 17. The main sponsors of the event were Interek, Ishida and Alchemy.

Associated sponsors were NSF, Safefood 360, Softrace and the Institute of Food Research.

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