Science & Environment

Mince ban' linked to horsemeat scandal'

mince meat
Image caption The horsemeat crisis has put the spotlight on the ingredients used in value products

An EU decision to reclassify a type of minced meat widely used in the UK played a significant part in creating the horsemeat crisis, a former Food Standards Agency senior scientist says.

Desinewed meat was a key ingredient in value items such as pies, lasagne and other processed beef products.

Dr Mark Woolfe said the decision to ban it last year had prompted producers to go outside the UK to source supplies of cheap mince.

The FSA said this was not to blame.

Until 2009, Dr Woolfe was the head of authenticity at the FSA.

He says the root cause of the current horsemeat crisis can be traced back to a decision taken by the European Commission less than 12 months ago to ban desinewed meat, which was then a key food ingredient.

He also suggested UK lamb products might need testing for horsemeat to reassure customers.

Under pressure

De-sinewed meat (DSM) was introduced in the the UK in the 1990s as a replacement for mechanically recovered meat (MRM). Sometimes called "pink slime", MRM was formed by removing residual meat from animal bones using high pressure water.

It had been linked to the spread of the human form of mad cow disease and the UK government took steps to restrict it from the food chain.

DSM was developed as a higher quality form of recovered meat. It was produced using low pressure, retained some structure and was regarded as a meat ingredient on value products.

But in April last year, the European Commission told the FSA that it no longer regarded DSM as a form of meat and it would have to reclassify it as MRM, which meant it could no longer be used in low-cost meat items.

"The FSA, bullied by the commission, issued a moratorium on DSM which was a perfectly good ingredient for value products," Dr Woolfe told reporters.

"Manufacturers who were using it for value products had to leave the UK food chain and go and look at overseas suppliers at a price similar to DSM and this is where I think things started to go wrong," he said.

Long chains

Dr Woolfe said he believed that most of the producers of value beef products in the UK would have been affected by this ruling. He was asked if this played a role in the horsemeat crisis.

"I would say it has contributed a large part to it, yes. When you go abroad, the chain gets longer and you have to rely on documentation alone."

Dr Woolfe also raised the possibility that lamb products might need testing to reassure consumers that horse had not been used as an ingredient. Desinewed lamb was used quite extensively in some products and since the ban suppliers would also have needed to look outside the UK for a replacement, he said.

"DSM was being produced in quite significant quantities, especially for the kebab industry, so it's a good question, that you can only answer if you look into the issue and test. It could be an area that also wants looking at as well." he said.

Dr Woolfe said that the FSA had reduced its programme of surveillance and this had also contributed to the problem.

He said that much of its work had been based on intelligence gathered through working closely with industry on the surveillance committee. That had now ended and, as a result, the vital intelligence from the industry was no longer coming through.

The FSA said: "The problem here is either gross negligence or criminal activity, potentially across Europe. We're not aware of any evidence to suggest that the reclassification of DSM as mechanically separated meat in the UK has led to the contamination of beef products with horsemeat.

"Regardless of financial pressures that may have arisen from the DSM moratorium, the food industry is required to ensure their products are legally produced, safe to eat and are what they say on the label. There is simply no excuse for substituting [horsemeat for beef]."