Editor’s comment: How much contamination is too much?

IT’S BEEN a tough couple of weeks for the British food industry. First, there was the discovery of horse DNA in burgers supplied by food manufacturer ABP to the likes of Burger King and Tesco. Then pork DNA turned up in halal pastries from McColgan Quality Foods and supplied to prisons through distributor 3663. Islamic law forbids the consumption of pork.


Cue much pointing of fingers and soundbites in the media – “shocked” and “unacceptable” two of the most frequently used by ministers, standards agencies and food companies alike – and then an emergency meeting. In a few hours the need for a new testing regime was agreed.


Some have suggested the new regime needs to mimic that available for genetic modified (GM) materials – though for halal and kosher products there will surely be a need to go further than the 0.9% levels permitted for GM (one suspects the explanation that the pork DNA got into some of the pastries after machinery was not cleaned will be deemed not good enough).


Indeed, given the nature of the cases and the consumer backlash for some of the UK’s best-known brands, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) needs to turn the theory of a new regime into practice – and quickly.


Just prior to the meeting, the FSA said that it wanted to “stress again the responsibility of all food businesses to ensure the food that they sell contains what it says on the label”. This is why, some argue, that the UK also needs to look more closely at the need for a labelling scheme for halal. Questions have to be asked, surely, given that McColgan Quality Foods is approved by the Halal Food Authority. Discussions on labelling are taking place at an EU level; these are looking at whether meat should be labelled with method of slaughter – for example stun versus no-stun – and whether it should be labelled as religious slaughter – for example, halal and shechita. This is an issue that has been ongoing for some years now, with little sign of a resolution.


The concerns and issues surrounding GM are not dissimilar – confused consumers, challenges over levels of contamination and the labelling system and government dithering have combined to suppress any sensible debate.


Whether it’s GM or halal, these are issues the food industry must tackle. Consumers, at the very least, want companies to show leadership – so let’s have less finger-pointing and more forward-thinking.


  • Footprint is running a GM-focused forum at the United States Department of Agriculture on February 28.