Burger scandal reveals food adulteration in Britain

More than ten million beef burgers and other beef products have been withdrawn from supermarkets throughout the UK, following the discovery that they contained horsemeat, as well as meat from pigs.

Supermarkets were forced to stop selling the products following a public outcry when Food Safety Authority of Ireland inspectors found that, out a total of 27 burger products analysed, 10 of them contained traces of horse DNA and 23 pig DNA. An additional 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

The Tesco supermarket budget brand Everyday Value burger, was tested as being 29 percent horsemeat. Tesco is Britain’s largest supermarket chain. The burgers were for sale in Tesco’s British and Republic of Ireland stores. Contaminated burgers were also on sale in Dunnes Stores, as well as the Lidl and Aldi supermarkets in the Republic. They were supplied by three meat processing companies, two of which, Silvercrest and Dalepak, were owned by the ABP Food Group based in Ireland. The other plant found to be supplying adulterated meat is owned by Liffey Meats, also in Ireland.

Over the weekend, the more upscale supermarket, Waitrose, became the latest outlet to remove beef burgers supplied by ABP. Burgers from ABP’s Dalepak plant in North Yorkshire, England account for approximately 8 percent of Waitrose’s burger sales.

The Premier Inn hotel chain was also forced to remove burgers supplied by Silvercrest from its 240 restaurants. Burger King announced last Thursday it had dropped Silvercrest Foods as a supplier for its UK and Ireland restaurants as a “voluntary and precautionary measure.”

While it is legal to sell horsemeat in the UK, it is illegal to sell food containing ingredients that aren’t listed on the label.

This latest case of adulterated food products, supplied by multinational food giants and sold by the supermarket conglomerates, demonstrates once again that the rapacious search for higher profits has compromised public health and basic food standards.

The adulteration and contamination of food in the UK is a common practise, with only the most some recent examples being that of pollock being passed off as cod and chicken fillets filled with water. That is why, within hours of the story breaking, the media turned its focus away from the criminal breach of regulations involved, to focus on why horsemeat should not be part of the traditional UK diet.

Virtually unreported was that the contaminated Irish beef products were known about by food inspectors two months ago, but were not announced on the basis that further tests needed to be conducted. It was only on December 21 that officials at the agriculture ministry in Ireland were alerted, with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK only informed on January 14.

It is also now accepted that horsemeat has probably been on sale in meat products for years in the UK. The FSA has admitted it has never conducted tests in the past to detect horsemeat, on the basis that the meat was safe to eat.

The FSA was set up in 2000 by the then Labour government following numerous public health crises and epidemics: salmonella, listeria, botulism, BSE (“mad cow” disease) and the outbreak of E.coli food poisoning.

So discredited were the food corporations in the aftermath of the BSE crisis that it was deemed that a new food agency, untarnished by past scandals, was required. However, the essential role of the FSA has been to defend and promote the interests of the food and drink companies that comprise the largest manufacturing sector in Britain.

Those regulations that exist to protect public safety have continually been cut back. In 2010, as part of the incoming Conservative/Liberal Democrat governments' deregulation programme, the FSA was stripped of sole responsibility for food composition and safety. It's powers over food labelling and composition responsibility were instead given to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In the UK, trading standards officers are responsible for food inspections, but massive cuts in its budget from £213 million in 2011-12 to £140 million by 2014 will be hazardous to public safety. In just the two years between 2009-10 and 2011-12, 743 jobs were lost in trading standards at local authority level.

While the supermarkets have sought to increase profits by demanding their suppliers continually lower their prices, lax regulations mean virtually anything can still make its way into the food chain.

There are two classifications of burger that can be sold in the UK. A “standard” beefburger can only be classified as such if it comprises a minimum of 62 percent beef. A chicken burger must contain a minimum of 55 percent chicken meat, and a pork burger 67 percent minimum pig meat. This leaves much scope for these burgers to be “filled” out with other ingredients.

An “economy” burger need only contain 47 percent, 41 percent and 50 percent respectively.

As Felicity Lawrence, the author of several exposes of the food business, wrote last week in the Guardian, “The meat itself, that 47 percent legal minimum bit, isn't just what you and I think of as meat—that is, lean muscle meat, but is allowed to contain fat, collagen and connective tissue in the same proportion as they naturally occur in the cut being used.”

Noting that the cheapest cuts of meat can “average 32 percent fat, 19 percent connective tissue, and 3 percent collagen”, she added, “So the ‘meat’, which is less than half the burger already, can in fact be a third fat.”

To adhere to labelling guidelines, additional protein can be created by manufactures by using the hides or gristle of animals as a “seasoning” mix.

Lawrence stated, “The crucial thing to understand is that economy foods at rock-bottom prices such as these are a reconstruction of deconstructed parts, bought around the world from wherever is cheapest.”

On this basis massive fortunes are to be made in the meat processing industry with ABP owner Larry Goodman and his wife Kitty currently worth £424 million and the firm turning over an estimated £2.2 billion annually.

As the incomes of millions of working class people have been cut over decades, accelerated since the global financial crash in 2008, such unhealthy “economy” foods have become staples for many families.

It is still unclear as to the origin of the horsemeat in the burger products at the North Yorkshire plant, but Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said it was believed that the contaminated meat in Ireland came from a supplier in Poland. ABP has its own food plant in Poland, but said that the horsemeat did not originate from there.

Yet another food crisis involving horsemeat, with possibly devastating consequences for human health, has also been revealed.

On January 24 the FSA admitted five horses that tested positive for phenylbutazone, or bute—a drug harmful to humans—were slaughtered in UK abattoirs last year and exported to France for food. Phenylbutazone is an anti-inflammatory drug that is given to horses for the treatment of lameness, pain and fever. It is thought to cause bone marrow disorders in rare cases and is banned from human consumption within the European Union.