Horsemeat scandal 2.0? More meat found with unspecified animal DNA

You will recall the 2013 horsemeat scandal where it was reported that a large quantity of “beef” products were found to contain large proportions of horsemeat which was not declared on the packaging. This particular scandal highlighted the complex nature of food chains in Europe and further afield, as well as the emerging worldwide issue of food fraud. More recently, the Food Standards Authority (FSA) conducted targeted tests which found that one fifth of meat samples contained DNA from other animals not included in the list of ingredients.

What is food fraud?

Food fraud is defined as the “deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering with or misrepresentation of foods, ingredients or packaging.” [1]

This covers a range of potential issues with the food industry supply chain and the term “food fraud” is generally used when consumers are deliberately or unintentionally (through some error in the supply chain) misinformed about products and/or their origins, ingredients or source.

With the continued growth of pre-packaged and pre-prepared meals and other food products, consumers rely heavily on producers and/or retailers to correctly label products and to conduct sufficient due diligence to ensure that what they are buying is as described and as they would reasonably expect.

Meat fraud?

In 2017, the FSA conducted targeted tests (i.e. they tested organisations that had previously been suspected of food compliance issues) involving 487 businesses (which were made up of restaurants, supermarkets, as well as food processing plants) and found that around 22% of meat products tested were contaminated.

The BBC submitted a freedom of information request to the FSA and obtained figures and statistics which will once again shock consumers, especially after such warnings previously being issued following the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

Lamb was found to be the most at risk meat for contamination, with beef DNA being the most commonly found DNA contaminant. The FSA has made clear that it does not consider this targeted testing to be a reflection of the wider food industry and has asserted that the organisations tested were already suspected of contamination issues and therefore the results are not an accurate representation of contamination throughout the food industry.

How can food producers and retailers protect themselves and consumers?

Many have argued that fierce competition and cheaper products coming from outside the EU have led to many companies replacing more expensive meat with cheaper meat to reduce costs and market their products more cheaply to consumers.

The meat industry have been hit by scandal again less than 5 years after the 2013 horsemeat scandal highlighting the lack of transparency in the supply chain for meat products which has allowed companies to get away with replacing expensive meat with cheaper meat and passing this off to consumers.

With such a complex food supply chain, it may often be difficult for food producers and retailers to confirm that meat and other food products comply with the specifications detailed on the products. Having appropriate supply contracts in place is critical to ensure that companies have back-to-back protection and are able to seek damages should products be found to contain additional animal DNA and/or there are any have any other supply issues e.g. any other type of contaminant.

Having appropriate audit and inspection rights in relation to suppliers should also assist in ensuring oversight of the full supply and/or production chain and provide assurance that products conform to the packaging/labelling as advertised to consumers.

Upcoming Event at MacRoberts LLP

As this issue is so high profile as a historic, current and emerging problem within the food sector, MacRoberts have dedicated a morning to discussing these issues with our clients and contacts.

[1] Food Fraud Report produced by NFU Mutual. Available at: https://www.nfumutual.co.uk/foodfraud

This article was co-written by Rebecca Henderson, a Solicitor in our IPTC team.

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