Traceability: cheese and Horsegate

burgerLike some, I have been following the latest food ‘scandal’ with interest.  Horsegate is an interesting one; selling horse meat in this country is not illegal, not labelling it as such is illegal.  We seem to have a peculiar cultural attitude towards the idea of eating horse, yet it is regularly eaten in France and continental Europe, in fact, I ate horse meat with cous cous in Rouen, many moons ago when I used to get out and about.

To my mind, Horsegate poses several questions: firstly, did the companies selling the beef burgers containing horse meat know that this formed part of the inputs they were processing?

If they knew, then they failed to comply with the legal requirement to include the horse meat on the label.

If they did not know – why did they not know?

Secondly, some news reports have said that some burgers tested contained 29% horse meat.  I do not believe this is correct.  I think it is more likely that this percentage is a percentage relative to the amount of beef.  To be honest, I would rather eat ‘safe’ horse meat than some of the stuff that is used as fillers, including mechanically retrieved meat; mind you, I am almost a vegetarian, but to people who choose not to eat pork, for religious or cultural reasons, they may be feeling pretty angry as pig DNA has also been detected.

If the burger processors did not know the meat they were processing contained horse meat, then how do they know that it was fit for human consumption?  The answer is presumably, they could not know.  One presumes that the blame is going to be shifted down the line whereby the burger processors will blame their supplier for not disclosing the contents of the meat supplied.  This begs the question – how rigorous were their systems to ensure the suppliers were supplying what they said they were?

I was listening to a spokesperson from the British Retail Consortium on the radio who waffled about the cost of testing being expensive and having to be passed on to the buyers and ultimately the consumer.

Ribblesdale Original Sheep Cheese

Ribblesdale Original Sheep Cheese

This reminds me of the time Sainsburys were interested in taking our Original Sheep.  The problem with this, however, was that we would have to extend our testing regime for each batch of cheese sold (we already do test each and every batch for Salmonella, E Coli, Staph A and Listeria.)  When I factored the cost of Sainsbury’s testing regime (which to me seemed completely over the top and took no account of what we already did and the cost implications for small batch production) into the costings, it came out to about an additional £1 per kg.  Sainsburys then turned round and told us that the cheese was too expensive so we did not sell it to them.

So why is it that Sainsburys turned down our cheese because whilst we were willing to extend our testing, they were not prepared to accept the cost but the burger processors sold burgers containing horse (and pig) meat which presumably was not picked up by testing.  My understanding is that it was a test conducted by the Irish Food Standards Agency that picked this up.  Are the burger processors cutting corners by not testing or not auditing their supplier’s assurances?  I can see many bucks being passed and a lot of very harassed meat processing QA Managers pulling their hair out.

Ok, the burger processors did not disclose horse or pig meat on the labels, which is both morally wrong and illegal – if they are relying on supplier assurances, they did not Penny Pigknow – but by way of mitigation, it has already been established that the horse meat is safe to eat.  Despite this, part of the concern appears to me to be cultural: people not wanting to eat horse meat.  I suspect the practice has been going on for some time.  According to The First Post up to 10,000 horses a year are exported from the UK to France, Belgium and Italy for eating so somebody knows about the practice.

As part of our quality systems, we look at the FSA website each week for updates or alerts that may affect us as a cheese maker.  Each week there are several food recalls for incidents including incorrect labelling, especially where nuts have been included in the product and not disclosed on the label.  Yes, serious, but get the product back.  I can’t help feel that Horsegate is going to crucify the meat processing industry.

We, like most food manufacturers live in fear of a product recall, it has to be one of the worst crises to deal with and we must all have robust systems in place to deal with it.  We have systems to show where the milk came from, checks undertaken on the intake and storage of milk, a technical spec against which the raw milk must comply, pasteuriser records and forced practice diverts, recorded make sheets, lab tests, no product release until a negative lab result has been received, batch sheets showing where each cheese from each batch is sent, temperature records to show correct storage, an annual EHO inspection and a Grade A at BRC.

I do not condone what the meat processors have done, but I do feel a slight twinge of sympathy towards them, that is if they really did not know and had practiced due diligence on their supply chain; this is our worst nightmare too and the stuff of which ruined reputations are made.

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2 Comments

Filed under Ribblesdale Cheese

2 responses to “Traceability: cheese and Horsegate

  1. doughtm1966

    A well balanced & thoughtful commentary Iona – its a shame we don’t get insight in the mainstream media ! Hope you’re doing well, despite the snow… matt

    • Hi Matt

      Thanks for getting in touch – how the devil are you – and congratulations on your little girl! Time passes by so fast…

      Snow just about gone at home now, thanks. Were you badly affected?

      I have just had another rant about raw milk….sorry about that. But I guess, being involved in the food industry, even in such a small way does open your eyes to some of the nonsense that is said about food.

      Anyway, thanks for getting in touch and hope all is well with you and your family.

      With best wishes

      Iona

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