The story of how horsemeat ended up inside hundreds of millions of cheap burgers and beef ready meals has opened a window on the hidden, unsavoury food world, in which live animals are transported vast distances across borders for slaughter, before being stripped down to constituent parts to be shipped back again in blocks of frozen offcuts that may be stored for months on end before being ground down to unrecognisable ingredients in our everyday meals.
The food industry likes to boast it has full traceability of its food chain, but what the current crisis demonstrates beyond contention is that they have lost control. The system is only as safe as the paper on which it is written, and as honest as its most entrepreneurial rogues.
As the horsemeat scandal entered its fourth week, it was hard to keep track of developments, as manufacturers, suppliers and the authorities worked together to control the flow of information, and mostly refused to answer questions other than those about the immediate admissions they were forced to make as test results came in.
But by the end of the week a picture of full-scale food fraud was emerging. Horsemeat turns out to have adulterated not just the cheap beefburgers that kicked off the food crisis in Ireland and the UK nearly a month ago, but also big-brand ready meals of beef lasagne.Supermarkets withdrew spaghetti bolognese and meatballs made in the same factories for fear of what they may find.
What began as outrage at Tesco’s Everyday Value Beef Burgers, revealed to be 29% horsemeat in January, paled into insignificance beside the “beef” in Findus’s beef lasagne that the company admitted on Thursday was 100% equine. It had begun withdrawing its products from shops across the UK on Monday after an alert from its supplier, French manufacturer Comigel, that there “might be an issue with labelling”. Damage-limitation PR experts Burson Marsteller, hired by Findus, offered the dubious reassurance that its product was only 15% “beef” anyway. Tesco and Aldi, who also source from Comigel, decided to withdraw their beef meals while they tested to see what was in them.
The Findus admission has moved the scandal up a gear, pulling in yet another European country and a manufacturer with no apparent connection to the giant Irish meat processor, ABP, that was at the heart of the horse allegations when they first broke, blaming cheap blocks of frozen imported offcuts from Poland.
But it was only when the ready meal of horse surfaced that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) went on the public offensive, telling TV and radio that it had now instructed food businesses to test all their beef products – burgers, meatballs, lasagnes and other ready meals – for the presence of horsemeat, and to provide it with the results by 15 February.
The Irish authorities have called in the police to investigate what they are now referring to as a major criminal fraud in the food supply chain. Meanwhile, more than 200m beefburgers have been cleared from the shelves and fast food outlets, by some estimates.
So what about food safety? The FSA maintains it’s an investigation into “mislabelled meat” – there’s nothing illegal about flogging dead horse so long as you identify it on the pack. It has also reassured consumers there is no concern over food safety, although it advised anyone who had bought the Findus beef meals not to eat them since they have not yet been tested for phenylbutazone, a drug commonly used for horses that is banned as unsafe from the human food chain. It can cause serious blood disorders in rare cases. Until the authorities uncover the source of the horsemeat, they cannot be sure what sort of horses, from which country, and which bits of them, containing which drug residues, we have been eating.
In the UK, seven abattoirs are licensed to kill horses for human consumption. No link has been made between UK horse abattoirs and the current scandal. The FSA has, however, been chasing details of horses slaughtered for meat in the UK that turn out to have contained residues of the banned “bute” drug. Investigations have shown that nine horses from UK abattoirs tested positive last year. Six were exported to France; in two cases the FSA is still trying to trace the carcasses, and in a further case the horse had not been exported, but had been purchased by two premises in the UK “for personal consumption”. It fell to Kirklees and Chorley councils to try to recover the meat.
When Chorley officials went looking for its share of the “bute” carcass, said to have been returned to a Lancashire farmer for his own hotpot, it was nowhere to be found. According to the farmer’s recently widowed wife, he had sent his horse to the abattoir for disposal some time previously and never saw, nor expected to see, it again.
Chorley council identified the abattoir in question as High Peak Meat Exports Ltd, known as the Red Lion abattoir, owned by the Turner family and located in Nantwich, Cheshire. The company has been subject of animal-rights protests this week following undercover filming by Hillside Animal Sanctuary that showed its slaughtermen abusing horses. The FSA told us it had withdrawn licences from three slaughtermen at the site and was carrying out further investigations with a view to potential prosecution.
The company told us it was carrying out its own investigation in to the welfare abuses. It said it was aware of two horses from its production line testing positive for bute historically, but that it was an unsurprising figure and typical of what was likely to be found in all abattoirs. “A positive does not imply any public health risk because the residue limits are set at such a low level,” it added.
It is legal to slaughter horses for human consumption so long as they have a valid passport, which is meant to record any medicines they have been administered in the course of their lives. The system of horse passports is, however, widely acknowledged to be ineffective. More than 75 organisations are able to issue them, making it very hard for officials and horse dealers to authenticate them. The Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says it has seen countless fraudulent passports.
The authorities have also been concerned for some time about the scale of the trade in horses of such low value – transporting them at considerable cost between countries appears to make no economic sense unless other criminal activity is involved, yet the number of horses shipped between countries has more than doubled in the last few years. A tripartite agreement between the UK, France and Ireland allows horses to travel between the three countries without health certificates.
The animal welfare charity World Horse Welfare, which works closely with port and other enforcement authorities, told us that it had “been warning government for some time that the ease with which horses can be moved between Ireland, the UK and France makes the horse trade attractive to organised criminals who are using them as cover for other illegal activities. This causes great suffering to the horses transported, and also opens the door for infectious disease,” Roly Owers, its chief executive said.
Last October the authorities managed to secure a conviction. Laurence McAllister, a horse dealer from Country Antrim, and Kieran Murphy, originally from South Armagh, were found guilty of trying to smuggle more than £500,000 worth of cannabis from Scotland through Belfast port in their horse lorry. The drug haul was concealed in bags of molasses between the horse stalls. McAllister had been tracked on two occasions transporting unfit horses and donkeys, some without the required passports, from Northern Ireland into Scotland for disposal in the UK; cannabis was part of the return load. He was later also found guilty of animal cruelty offences, and of smuggling prescription-only veterinary medicines. He was carrying more than £6,000 in cash at the time of his arrest.
The source of the horsemeat that ended up in beef factories in Ireland and France before being processed into food for British and Irish supermarkets is still unclear. ABP told us it had never knowingly imported horsemeat to its factory and was cooperating with investigators. It initially blamed its continental European suppliers and denied that any of the suspect material came from its own factory in Poland, pointing the finger at other Polish suppliers. Tests on meat from five Polish abattoirs identified from paper records as part of the ABP supply chain came back negative, however, and official Polish veterinary staff suggested the British and Irish look closer to home.
The trail moved rapidly through the week from Poland, back to a cold store for frozen meat in Newry, Northern Ireland, called Freeza Meats, where a large consignment, already quarantined and removed from the food chain by the authorities for irregularities, was found to contain 80% horsemeat.
A spokesman for Freeza Meats’ owners told us they had refused to buy the meat because they were suspicious of its state and the accuracy of its labelling with Polish healthmarks, and were merely holding it in store as a “goodwill” gesture for the company that had sent it to them, McAdam Foods.
ABP acknowledged that it had on occasion bought Polish meat “in good faith” for the factory that made the dodgy burgers for Tesco, Burger King and other retailers, from McAdam Foods. But ABP and McAdam could not agree what had been bought when. McAdam in turn passed the blame for the horsemeat to one of its suppliers, saying it had sourced the 80% horse consignment which ended up in Freeza Meats from a Hull-based company called Flexi Foods, which in turn has operations in Poland.
Neither McAdam nor Flexi Foods were answering their phones when the Guardian made repeated attempts to contact them. The French manufacturer Comigel did not respond to requests for comment.
With the next vast round of new tests due in next week, few expect the horse meat scandal to end here.