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Council meat tests highlight labelling concerns

Published 11 March 2014

A NINE-month programme of meat product testing carried out by Leicester City Council has found widespread contraventions of food labelling law, but has raised no food safety concerns.

The city council launched the citywide meat product testing programme in May 2013. This was in response to the widely-reported contamination of meat products with horsemeat, and the discovery of pork DNA in lamb burgers labelled as halal which were supplied to a city primary school.

In total, 105 samples of meat products taken from local businesses have been tested. Of these, 47 samples (44%) were found to contain meat from species other than that declared, at levels regarded as gross contamination.

Among the products which failed the tests were samples of lamb curry found to contain only beef or turkey, and samples of lamb mince from butcher's shops made with undeclared beef or chicken.

The tests also found samples of beef sausages and burgers that contained undeclared chicken, lamb spring rolls and lamb samosas with undeclared chicken and beef, and chicken samosas that contained only lamb meat and lamb samosas that contained only chicken meat.

Twelve out of 20 samples of doner meat also failed due to misdescription by sellers.

The tests found no undeclared pork or horsemeat in any of the 105 samples.

Cllr Sarah Russell, Assistant City Mayor for neighbourhood services, said: "While these test results reflect the findings of similar exercises in other parts of the UK, they will still be disappointing news for consumers.

"While it is important to emphasise that the tests found no safety concerns, people should have confidence that the food they are buying is what it is described as.

"What we've found is a widespread confusion about the importance of accurate labelling by sellers and manufacturers. Fortunately, our officers have been able to advise businesses on relatively simple steps they can take to put this right and how to help ensure that the food they buy in is what it is described as.

"This action was always intended to support local businesses, and offer them access to testing which would normally only be available to larger chains.

"We will be sharing our findings with the Food Standards Agency, and calling on it to implement a campaign to ensure all food businesses, but especially takeaways and restaurants, have a better understanding of labelling regulations.

"This is clearly a national issue, and we will be supporting the call on the government to implement the recommendations of the Elliot Review. It is essential that the food chain is governed in a way that prioritises consumer confidence.

"If left unchecked, a widespread disregard for the importance of clear and accurate food labelling is bound to impact on consumer confidence. It is also unfair to the many businesses that take these responsibilities very seriously."

In December 2013, The Elliot Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks submitted an interim report to Government. This called for all parties involved in the governance of the food chain to prioritise consumer confidence and make food crime prevention a primary focus.

The same month, results of tests on almost 900 samples taken in West Yorkshire were published. This found that of 873 various food samples, 331 received adverse test results. The testing programme included 221 samples of processed meat products and restaurant and takeaway dishes. In total 113 of these samples (51%) returned adverse test results for labelling.

In Leicester, all samples were tested by Public Analyst Scientific Services Ltd, on behalf of the city council.

Samples were tested for the presence of meat from seven species of animal. These were cattle (beef), pig (pork), goat, horse, sheep, chicken and turkey.

The tests provide a semi-quantitative count of mitochondrial DNA. This means that while the test can accurately determine what species of animal is present in a meat product, it will only report how much of the product is from each species within a percentage range.

According to the Food Standards Agency, where the DNA of an undeclared species is at or above one per cent, this will be regarded as gross contamination. This can potentially be the result of deliberate adulteration and findings of this level must be investigated. It is a legal requirement to accurately describe and label food.

Ten of the samples which returned adverse results contained at least one type of undeclared meat at levels considered 'diminutive', or between one and five per cent.

Eighteen samples returned results showing that undeclared meat was a major ingredient, accounting for levels of between 60 and 100 per cent.

The rest of the failed samples returned results showing the presence of at least one type of undeclared meat at minor (5-30%) or medium (30-60%) levels.

One sample returned no DNA result as the meat ingredient had been so heavily processed it was considered 'denatured'.

The doner meat samples failed due to the way establishments had described the product. There is no legal definition for doner kebab, however the Food Standards Agency advise that doner meat, without labelling advising otherwise, should be considered a customary name for a sheep meat product. Therefore, where doner meat is on sale without labelling offering accurate clarification of other meat ingredients, they should contain only lamb.

So far, the city council has issued 15 warnings and made 10 referrals to local authorities where the meat product was manufactured outside of Leicester. Two businesses have ceased trading since the samples were taken.

Further investigation into five cases where the contamination appears to have occurred further up the supply chain is also now underway.

A city council investigation into halal lamb burgers reported to contain pork DNA, which were removed from city primary schools in April 2013, is now in its final stages.

The council is now seeking expert legal advice on whether further action should be taken against the manufacturer.

Source: Company Press Release