Horse DNA found in frozen burgers in stores across Britain and Ireland has resulted in the withdrawal of 10 million burger patties and the closure of three processing plants and talk of criminal liability. The disclosure of the test results done late last year has sparked outrage in Britain, where eating horse meat is taboo. Investigations are ongoing to determine how this happened and who is to blame.
Although the events are happening on another continent, the story has relevance for consumers everywhere, because of the global food chain which has produce and processed food crossing international and regional borders. Consumers want to be assured that they can shop in confidence because there is a watchdog looking after their interests.
In Jamaica's case, regulatory agencies such as the Bureau of Standards, Public Health Department, Food Storage and Prevention of Infestation, Pesticide Control Authority, and Veterinarian Services are responsible for making sure that food which gets into Jamaica is correctly labelled legal and safe.
The burning question for Jamaican consumers is whether these agencies have the capacity and resources to systematically sample and test the variety of food that is imported. If the current budget squeeze that is common to many state agencies also applies to any of these critical bodies, this would be cause for concern to local consumers.
Although the British spurn horsemeat, hippophagy is a popular choice for persons living in France, Belgium and Italy. A high-protein food, horse meat is said to be also low in cholesterol and fat. There is certainly nothing illegal about selling or consuming horse meat; what is illegal is false labelling of products. Not only was horse meat found in some of the burgers, but there were traces of pig.
As an indication of how widely horse meat is eaten around the world, data from the United Nations indicate that in 2009, China was the top producer with 168,000 tonnes, followed by Mexico with 81,700 tonnes, and rounding off the top producers was Kazakhstan, with 71,300 tonnes. Slaughterhouses in Canada exported some 15,000 tonnes of horse meat in 2010, mainly to China and Japan.
The demand for horse meat as an alternative to beef rose as fears of foot-and-mouth disease increased right after the mad cow scare. And in places like China, horse meat is considered a delicacy. However, no diner wants to have horse meat introduced to him clandestinely in his hamburger.
As times get harder, people are in search of cheap food. A burger is one such food, and it contains some meat but a great amount of additives. In some of the tests done on the frozen burgers, they were found to have as much as 27 per cent horse meat!
It is not beyond the imagination that food producers could deliberately include cheap, even hazardous ingredients in processed food to ensure better returns on their investment. This demands that the official inspection system has to be vigilant and alert and that workers in the food industry have to be watchful to anything that appears suspicious.
It will likely take some time for consumer confidence to be restored in Britain.
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