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What has now become known as ‘Horsegate’ continued to dominate media coverage in recent weeks, with significant implications for the reputation of the modern meat industry.

The discovery by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of ‘equine DNA’ in some frozen burger products created a media storm in early January.

The initial findings related to products sold under the Tesco Value label, but other retailers such as Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Iceland and Dunnes Stores quickly followed Tesco into the eye of the storm. They were soon joined by a host of ‘blue chip’ frozen food brands, including Findus, Birds Eye and Nestle, with further contamination coming to light in the foodservice sector (Brakes, Compass, Sodexo and Whitbread).

To date, the Food Standards Agency has received 5,430 test results, and less than 1% or 44 samples revealed the presence of horse DNA above the 1% threshold. The authorities were keen to stress that issues of food safety were not involved in this matter and, thus far, none of the samples analysed revealed the presence of the veterinary drug, phenylbutazone, commonly used to treat horses.

Although the evidence to date clearly indicates that the presence of horse DNA in beef products is very limited, this has not diminished the media enthusiasm for investigating the occasionally rather circuitous route of horsemeat into beef products – in the case of a Findus ‘Beef Lasagne’ meal, the trail began in Rumania and passed through Cyprus, France and Luxemburg en route for the supermarket shelves in Northern Europe. More locally, they discovered another trail leading from a small abattoir in West Yorks to a processor in Aberystwyth in West Wales.

The media were also quick to jump on any latest snippet of market research offered to them, suggesting the terminal decline of the processed meat category. They gleefully, and rather uncritically, reported that:

  • 31% of adults have stopped eating ready meals (according to Consumer Intelligence)
  • 20% of adults say they'll buy less meat (according to Consumer Intelligence)
  • 1 million households have stopped buying frozen burgers (according to AC Nielsen)
  • 33% of adults are less likely to buy processed meat (according to Kantar)
  • Butchers sales up 10-15% since January – and sausages, mince and burgers up by 50% (according to the National Federation of Meat Traders)

In truth, it is far too early to make any sensible assessment of any longer term impacts on the sales of ready meals or other processed meat products. Inevitably, traditional sales patterns would have been affected by the significant ‘out of stock’ position which occurred in many supermarkets as the evidence of contamination emerged.

There was much debate about the need for a shorter and more transparent meat supply chain. Unsurprisingly, British farming interests were quick to seek to translate this into stronger demand for locally produced meat. The National Farmers Union launched a new campaign, entitled 'Leading the Way in High Standards' and BPEX and EBLEX joined forces to launch a ‘Quality Assured’ campaign, linked to the Red Tractor assurance scheme.

Tesco announced their plan to develop close links with the British livestock industry and, from July, all their fresh chicken would be sourced from the UK.

The recent purchase of the Vion poultry and beef and lamb businesses by 2 Sisters was seen by several commentators as being linked to the increasing demand for home-produced meat in the years ahead.