Whatever your feelings about eating horse meat, the discovery that some supermarket burgers have been found to contain horse DNA raises a serious question: why did the British food safety authorities fail to spot the problem? It is only thanks to the Irish that we know that 37 per cent of spot-tested frozen beefburgers contained horse DNA and an extraordinary 85 per cent also contained traces of pork.
After all the alarms and scandals surrounding BSE, most people will have assumed that this country had proper mechanisms in place to check the origins of meat. But although every meat animal now has an individual ear tag, and cattle must have passports to be moved from farm to market or slaughterhouse, surveillance of imported meat seems far more lax.
Silvercrest, the Irish company which sold beefburgers to Tesco containing 29 per cent horse meat, says it believes the contaminating meat came from Continental Europe and announced that it was investigating two suppliers. It is reasonable to ask why it did not do that earlier. But it is also reasonable to ask whether the British food authorities have sufficient measures in place to cope with the increasing globalisation of the food supply chain.
Government ministers and public scientists have given blithe reassurances that the findings pose no risk to public health. Yet it is difficult to know how they can be so confident. As they admit, they do not know the provenance of much imported meat.
Nor do they seem properly concerned about the presence of pig DNA in beef products, blandly explaining that different meat is processed in the same plants. This should alarm more than those whose faith forbids them to eat pork. Everyone is entitled to know what they are eating. We have no alternative but to trust what is written on the packaging, so any discrepancy between food and label should be a cause for concern. The British food authorities need to introduce more random checks – and tougher fines for those who break the rules.