Thursday 14 December 2017

'Food chain is only as secure as the weakest players in it'

Aideen Sheehan gets some answers from Professor Patrick Wall, professor of public health at UCD's Institute of Food

• How was the latest controversy uncovered?

The FSAI set up a Food Fraud Task Force in October 2012 to advise it on policing the food chain for authenticity. The food chain is only as secure as the weakest players in it. A total of 27 frozen burgers on sale in supermarkets in Ireland were tested, 22 had traces of pork or equine DNA, with one having more than a trace of equine.

The test is not one routinely used in food safety control systems. It is borrowed from the forensic scientists who look for traces of DNA to place people at the scene of crimes.

• What is thought to have happened here?

The test is so sensitive that it picks up molecules of DNA. If equine meat or pork was processed in a facility on adjacent productions lines, or even on subsequent days, there would be sufficient carryover of DNA to result in trace contamination of beef products.

• How has equine meat ended up in two Irish processors that claim not to process, or handle, horse meat?

A company supplies powdered beef protein, an ingredient added to the burgers. It is possible that this company processes horse meat and cross contamination occurred in its facility. In many EU member states, horse meat is regularly consumed.

• How can assurance be given that the burgers are safe?

The products have passed all routine food safety tests undertaken by both the companies and the regulators which look for harmful bacteria, chemical residues and foreign bodies. Recent food safety audits in both premises have shown the companies to have good hygienic practices and procedures.

• Has the Food Safety Authority gone over the top?

The FSAI is a consumer protection agency and consumers' interests come before all other considerations. It has a culture of openness and transparency and releases results when they become available. Communicating preliminary findings to the global media and to citizens and putting things in perspective is a challenging task.

One frozen burger with more than a trace of equine DNA has resulted in a recall of 10 million burgers off the retail shelves in the UK and Ireland. One would hope that these are all still in cold storage, pending the results of ongoing investigation, rather than destined for destruction.

Irish Independent

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