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Update on Authenticity of Meat Products

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Since the results of the FSAI’s targeted survey were released on 15th January and more recent results on 17th January, the FSAI and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are working closely together to seek to identify the source(s) of the contamination. The FSAI reiterates that the beef burger products identified in its survey do not pose any food safety risk for consumers.

Given that the survey’s findings did not indicate a food safety risk for consumers, the FSAI was not required to communicate the findings via the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (as would be normal procedure in international food safety incidents).  The findings did not require a mandatory withdrawal of implicated products from sale by either the food manufacturers or retailers. However, they did this rapidly in the interests of their customers’ expectations.

The FSAI survey identified equine DNA in ten of 27 samples of burger products, from three (two in Ireland, one in the UK) of the ten production plants (seven in Ireland, two in the UK) whose beef burger products were sampled.  In nine of the ten positive samples, the amount of equine DNA found is at trace or very low levels. Given that the plants in question do not handle horse meat products, these results indicate some cross contamination along the food ingredient supply chain, rather than adulteration.  In one sample, the amount of equine DNA found to be present is more significant and this is a matter of investigation.  Testing of product and ingredients is ongoing and officials are systematically checking any possible routes of entry which might provide an explanation.

In the interests of food safety, as part of the survey, the FSAI conducted testing for the presence of phenylbutazone in those equine DNA positive samples.  Phenylbutazone is a veterinary medicine commonly administered to horses and horses treated with this drug are excluded by law from the food chain.  All the tests for phenylbutazone were negative.

To check the safety, purity, integrity or authenticity of the food we eat, both producers and regulators use laboratory analysis. The methods available range from the very simple to highly sophisticated. The range, speed, accuracy and reliability of tests is constantly evolving and improving to the extent that we can now not only detect, but quantify very tiny amounts of chemical and biological materials. For instance, measurements of substances at levels such as one part per million, per billion or per trillion are commonplace.

The FSAI engaged two private laboratories which used a DNA-based technique - the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)- to detect the presence or absence of bovine, porcine or equine DNA in samples of meat products purchased in retail stores. The initial tests were qualitative where the absence or presence of DNA from the three different species was determined.  Samples which tested positive for equine DNA (expressed as “trace” in certain instances) were subjected to quantitative testing to estimate the amount of equine DNA relative to bovine DNA.  When results are expressed as less than the limit of quantification (<LOQ),  the level of DNA in a sample is present at such low levels that it is not quantifiable, and for all practical purposes can be considered as negligible.

The detection of trace amounts of non-bovine DNA highlights the need for food processors to be more vigilant about the integrity of food ingredients and the potential for cross contamination in plants where meat from multiple species is handled.

With regard to labelling, under EU legislation, where the horse or pork meat is used as an ingredient or part of a compound ingredient, their presence has to be declared.  However, if these are inadvertently or accidently present at low levels they would not be declared on the label.  The very low levels that were detected in some of the beef burger products are more indicative of inadvertent rather than a deliberate presence and as such, would not be declared.

Some research is required to determine if there are thresholds below which cross-contamination with DNA is unavoidable.  Should that prove to be the case, authorities, consumers and the food industry across Europe will have to consider how this could be addressed.

The FSAI will provide further update, as necessary.

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