Horsemeat – the FactCheck update
Last week we cast doubt on the Food Standards Agency’s claim that it had “required” every food retailer and manufacturer in the country to test all their processed beef for signs of horsemeat contamination.
We found that the agency does not have the legal power to order companies to carry out tests and cannot sanction them if they refuse.
And we thought it was doubtful that every seller of processed beef would have time to test their entire range before today – the deadline set by the FSA.
Now the first results from the industry tests are in.
The good news
No new cases of horsemeat contamination have been discovered. The FSA has tested 2,501 individual items and found that 29 of them contained at least 1 per cent horse.
Those 29 packs of meat all came from seven ranges that had already been identified as contaminated and pulled from supermarket shelves.
They are: Tesco Everyday Value frozen burgers and spaghetti bolognaise, Rangeland catering burgers, Findus beef lasagne, packs of four frozen beef burgers from Co-op and two Aldi frozen products: Today’s Special beef lasagne and spaghetti bolognaise.
Products found to contain horse DNA were tested again for the presence of the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, or “bute”, and were given the all-clear.
The bad news
These tests only cover about a quarter of the product ranges covered by the firms that took part in the testing regime.
The FSA says it has been informed of 962 tests that are still in progress. Clearly, if 2,501 tests is 25 per cent then another 962 tests only takes us up to about 35 per cent when all the confirmed tests have finished.
The agency told us that doesn’t mean that we will only ultimately get about one-third coverage at the end of the testing process, it’s just that things are progressing more slowly than hoped.
The expectation is that testing will continue in the coming weeks and more results will be passed on to the watchdog, although it has confirmed that it has no powers to force companies that have so far not come up with results to do so.
These tests don’t cover every supplier and retailer. That much is obvious from the revelations today that two products supplied to pubs supplier by Whitbread contained horsemeat, as did cottage pie delivered to schools in Lancashire.
Neither of these was picked up by the FSA-backed tests, begging the question: how wide is the coverage from these tests?
The FSA lists 110 companies who took part, including all the big supermarkets. But many smaller firms, including the nation’s 6,000 or so independent butchers, haven’t taken part.
Does the FSA have an estimate of how much of the total UK trade in meat is being covered by this campaign? No, was the answer, although the agency is carrying out another parallel random testing regime through local inspectors in 28 council areas as we speak.
What else don’t we know?
Firms taking part in these tests were asked to detect horse DNA at a threshold of 1 per cent or above.
The FSA said that was for practical reasons – commonly available testing kits are usually accurate to that degree – and because the priority is to find significant amounts of horse rather than tiny traces picked up by in the most DNA laboratories.
That makes sense, although it’s worth remembering that the tests by the Irish authorities that first brought this scandal to light were much more sensitive, rightly or wrongly.
Nine out of the 10 cases of contamination initially found by the Food Standards Agency of Ireland would not have been detected by these tests.
And, in keeping with the FSA’s intelligence-led philosophy, we’re only looking for horse in processed beef because that’s where the evidence of contamination points so far.
We’re not testing for other contaminants or checking other kinds of meat.
By Patrick Worrall