Paul Brannen: Why keeping our meat safe is all about trust

North East Labour MEP Paul Brannen says preventing issues like the horsemeat scandal is a key part of the EU's remit

The horsemeat scandal knocked people’s faith in the food they eat. One business here in the North East has always had high standards of meat traceability and is now leading the industry by using state of the art technology to deliver information on where our food actually comes from.

At Linden Foods in North Tyneside, cattle and sheep are slaughtered and prepared for sale in some of the UK’s best known retailers.

I paid a visit to the site last month to see from start to finish how meat is processed and to hear first-hand how the company is preparing to transform the way meat is tracked in the UK supply chain and beyond.

What was clear throughout the visit was the pride felt by the company and its staff in their high standards and best practice. Linden Foods’ Northumberland site is the North East’s first fully EU accredited abattoir, and thanks in part to a £200,000 cash injection from the North East Rural Development Programme in 2010, the company oversaw a major site renovation.

This enabled them to install new and improved equipment and systems to increase slaughter and chilling speeds, and so improve the efficiency and hygiene of their meat processing.

The company has gained a reputation as a profitable and sustainable business, which supports local farmers and provides top quality meat that customers can count on.

Trust in their products is crucial to Linden Foods, and the company were keen to stress their work in improving the relationship between consumers and producers across the entire industry. Linden, whose headquarters are in Northern Ireland, is currently working with Queens University Belfast to develop an improved and reliable system of meat tracking using DNA technology.

Once in place, customers will have access to information on every stage of the process, including where an animal was reared, where it was slaughtered and prepared for sale.

To do this the customer would simply scan the Quick Response code on the meat packaging with their mobile phone and, Hey Presto, the information would be available.

The horsemeat scandal of 2013, in which foods advertised as containing beef were found to have DNA traces of undeclared or improperly declared horse and pork meat, brought a level of urgency to the need for better transparency in the food processing chain.

Yet nearly half of global manufacturers admit to not having an oversight of the supply chain past their direct suppliers.

By being the first company to implement such technology, Linden hopes to become an example of best practice and help to raise standards in meat processing across the entire industry.

Creating higher standards would have the effect of exposing companies not complying with national and European regulations and supporting those companies whose adherence to the rules may currently be a competitive disadvantage.

It would ensure that UK consumers, whose ready meal and convenience meat purchases have increased six-fold since the late 1970s, have access to detailed and reliable information on what they are eating and where it came from. Horse meat scandals would be a thing of the past.

The EU provides a 28-state mechanism by which to roll out such technologies and ensure that they benefit us all. Much headway has already been made since 2013: the European Labour Party has for years been calling for tighter regulations to restore trust in the food industry, and in Strasbourg last month Labour MEPs voted for mandatory country of origin labelling to be extended to all meat in processed food.

In order to build on new industry initiatives such as DNA traceability and help raise the bar on food safety overall, we must be careful to retain the ability to control on what we goes into the food chain from outside the EU. It’s for this reason the European Labour Party has made it very clear that EU food safety standards are not up for negotiation in trade negotiations currently under way with the US (TTIP).

Improving food traceability will not only ensure the quality and safety of the food we eat, but also prevent food fraud, which is currently estimated to cost the global food industry up to £26.3billion every year.

Importantly, it is what an overwhelming majority of consumers want. It’s our duty as Parliamentarians to ensure that they are listened to.

Paul Brannen is a North East Labour MP.

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