Opinion: What level is acceptable?

In the wake of recent meat contamination scandals, there is still no legal definition of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ level of adulteration

Susan Birks
Deputy Editor

Cleaning efficacy in food plants has long been a major factor in food safety, and initiatives such as DirtyLab by Leatherhead Food Research can only improve industry know-how. But cleaning is also important in terms of product cross-contamination.

The recent horsemeat scandal, sparked when Irish food inspectors found horsemeat in amounts >1% in frozen beefburgers in January, opened up a wider debate on accidental cross-contamination through handling and processing, since some products were found with contamination of <1%.

While DNA tests can detect very low levels of cross-contamination, current food law does not specify the levels regarded as acceptable.

The issue has previously been raised over trace contamination of Halal and Kosher beef products with pork. At that time, the UK Government said it was not responsible for ‘private marketing standards’ and that there were no specific regulations governing the sale and labelling of these types of meat.

Since then the UK Food Standards Agency has said it will consult the public on levels of acceptable contamination, and the UK government has commissioned research on how best to assess and measure low-level contamination.

In a UK House of Commons report published on 16 July, several aspects of the horsemeat scandal were discussed, including cross-contamination. The report recommends that DNA tests on meat products be made compulsory for large food retailers and that results from the recent cross-contamination work be made available.

Clearly, cleaning effectiveness is going to remain important in the future.