The horse meat scandal was devastating for a number of international brands, forced to pull their products from the shelves and deal with the subsequent loss in consumer confidence. Australia stands unscathed from the whole incident. How? And why? Danielle Bowling reports.
It was the story that just wouldn’t go away. Every day there was a new headline and a new development; a new brand embroiled in the horse meat scandal, which triggered several product recalls, formal investigations and even arrests.
Supermarket chains Tesco and Aldi recalled their frozen spaghetti and lasagne products, produced by French supplier, Comigel, amid concerns over its Findus beef lasagne product.
After the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found horse DNA in burger products, ten million were pulled from the various supermarket shelves across Europe. Even furniture retailer IKEA became involved, recalling its meatball products across Europe after tests in the Czech Republic discovered some meatballs sold in the chain’s cafeterias contained horse meat. The affected batch had been distributed to Britain, Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium, Slovakia, Hungary, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Ireland.
The scandal even spread to Asia with Hong Kong authorities ordering supermarket chain, ParknShop, to remove lasagnes made by frozen food company Findus, one of the firms at the centre of the scandal.
French meat processing firm, Spanghero, is said to be at the heart of the scandal, allegedly passing off more than 700 tonnes of horsemeat as beef, with manufacturers none the wiser, and is no longer allowed to stock frozen meat.
Dodged the bullet
Australia, thankfully, steered clear of the whole situation. But how?
The Australian Food and Grocery Council’s deputy chief executive, Jeffrey Annison, told Food magazine the European horse meat scandal demonstrated to Australian food manufacturers that the food supply chain is a safe and effective one.
“I think that if it had any impact here it was to remind us all in the food industry and the wider community of the importance of focusing on the things that the food industry does well in Australia, which is to make sure the integrity of the food supply is maintained and that’s in terms of quality of product, safety of product and correct information going out to the consumer about the product,” he said.
The four key pillars of an effective food supply, he says, are a strong regulatory system; an understanding that food safety and food security are built on food quality and safety plans; an appropriate monitoring and surveillance system; and traceability up and down the food supply system.
Australian manufacturers – and perhaps more importantly, consumers – need to understand that the problems overseas were to do with illegal activity, not industry negligence.
“So those are the four pillars, and those are designed to protect against inadvertent loss of quality or safety,” Annison says, “of course what happened in Europe was food adulteration, so it was driven by profit rather than accidental contamination. Now that’s harder to control but you still need strong regulatory systems and monitoring systems.
“The usual driver for food adulteration is criminal profit, and against the backdrop of having relatively cheap foodstuffs in Australia, there’s less drive for criminals to wish to come in and make a profit,” Annison said. “If you have relatively cheap beef, there’s no advantage to trying to substitute it with horse meat.”
Peter Day, director of compliance and enforcement at the NSW Food Authority, agrees, and says Australia’s geographical isolation is one of the main reasons why local manufacturers weren’t caught up in the scandals that their European counterparts were.
“I think we’re lucky in Australia because it’s a different situation to Europe, in many cases, because we’ve got a border. We don’t have a single marketplace and so we don’t import a lot of meat either. Generally, speaking, meat’s fairly cheap over here as well, so there’s a ready supply of cheap, manufacturing meat around,” Day says.
“The other issue is that a lot of companies are actually banned from importing meat products into Australia because of the Mad Cow issue. So only a very limited number of countries can import cooked meat into Australia.”
By and large, Australian manufacturers don’t import meat because financially it doesn’t make sense when we can more easily produce our own top quality, affordable and traceable meat products. We also have a very effective, thorough screening and testing process, says Day.
“We had a royal commission 20-plus years ago and since then AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) has been doing species testing on a lot of meat samples going out of the country to overseas markets, and domestic regulators, like ourselves, do routine surveillance programs. Last year we took 100 samples to see what we would pick up. You simply cant sample every single product, but you’re casting a net over it to make sure that no problems show up.”
So what did we learn?
In the wake of the horse meat scandal, and despite already having effective testing procedures in place, Day said many regulators will tighten up their systems even more.
“I think it was probably a bit of a wake up call to both regulators and the industry in general, looking at their current systems of detecting and trying to eliminate this type of thing from happening here. I know in NSW we had a program in place anyway and we looked at it and where necessary we’ve actually enhanced the program of testing.
“We do testing on cooked and raw meat samples for species. So we looked at things to make sure that we were covering everything. So, do we need to cover other areas that we weren’t normally covering? We were making sure we had access to labs and so on. We did a bit of a review to make sure that our program was still current given the information that was coming in from Europe,” he said.
“And we found that our system was fairly good in terms of the testing systems out there. But I think for Australian regulators there was a need for a review, to see how they were conducting surveillance operations.”
Day said he’s expecting more labs to be conducting species tests moving forward, especially because manufacturers now want to confirm, via routine sampling and as an assurance to supermarkets, that what they say they’re producing is exactly what they are producing.
Perhaps the most important lesson for manufacturers is the importance of monitoring your suppliers.
The AFGC’s Jeffrey Annison said while Australian companies are already quite good at this, it’s never something you can be complacent about.
“I think every time there’s a food safety incident, it’s a reminder that the manufacturers are very reliant on the integrity of their suppliers and they need to make sure that they can check on that through establishing strong relationships and agreements about product specifications and so forth,” he said.
Peter Day agrees, and is clear in his advice to manufacturers. “Audit your suppliers. Check your suppliers out. Have a specification sheet which stipulates what you require from them and then rest that the make sure what you want is what you’re getting."
Supermarkets hold manufacturers to very tight specifications and manufacturers need to be able to say – and prove – that what is on their label’s product is completely accurate.
European consumers have no doubt been left shaken and surely cynical on the food processing industry as a result of the horse meat scandal. But are Australian consumers aware of how protected Australia was throughout the whole ordeal? Will they be skeptical, albeit unnecessarily, of Australian products?
Day believes the biggest problem in Europe now is that well-known brands have been tarnished, and when consumer confidence is lost, it’s very hard to get back. The thorough testing and screening processes which Australia’s food manufacturing industry can boast should reassure consumers that they are indeed getting what they are asking for.
“I think Australian consumers probably don’t think a lot about where their food comes from until something like this happens. They don’t think about all the links involved in being a food manufacturer and [in getting a product] to a store freezer. This incident highlights the length of the food chain thesedays, from farm to factory. It heightens concerns by consumers out there of the system, but they can have confidence that it’s being dealt with and there are programs in place to look out for that sort of thing in Australia.”