Written by: Heather Clemenceau
A few months ago the CFIA funded a study of sausages that determined that 20 per cent of samples from grocery stores across Canada contained meats that weren’t on the label. The study, which was prompted by the European horsemeat scandal of 2013, was conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph, and DNA profiling was used to detect the species found in sausages that were labelled as containing just one ingredient – beef, pork, chicken or turkey.
Seven of 27 beef sausages examined in the study were found to contain pork. One of 38 supposedly pure pork sausages contained horse meat. Of 20 chicken sausages, four also contained turkey and one also contained beef. The contamination isn’t exactly surprising (if processing facilities have horsemeat, they need to find a way to get rid of it). The CFIA investigated all cases of mis-labelled sausages and in the case of the chicken labelled as turkey, it was able to find issues with a manufacturer’s “traceability program” – incoming meat and production records were not properly maintained. The incident concerning horsemeat was not investigated because the company responsible voluntarily ceased operations (the way all slaughter operations should end). Explanations for the adulteration of the remaining sausages appears to be more complex.
There are usually two kinds of food adulteration – where the butcher/supplier deliberately or accidentally adds another species, or simple cross-contamination – meat can also come into contact with knives or preparation materials. Since the CFIA reported that the contamination was not found at trace amounts, we should assume the adulteration occurred as a result of either outright fraud or incompetency in handling/labelling meats.
My initial ATI to the CFIA requested the brand/store names where the sausages had been purchased – this is, IMO, one of the most important details that was never published in any report. The CFIA complied with the paperwork included below, but the open-records request remained only partially complete. After much follow-up, the CFIA indicated that they were prepared to release this information, but their attempt to disclose identifying details about the sausage supply chain was met was met with a refusal to comply by the named companies. According to the provisions of the Access to Information Act (ATIA), respondents are asked to agree to disclose information to the requesters in an open-records request. So an application was made for judicial review in order to attempt to remedy this refusal to disclose. Judicial review of an administrative action is only available for decisions made by a governmental or quasi-governmental authority. The practice is meant to ensure that powers delegated by government to boards and tribunals are not abused, and offers legal recourse when that power is misused, or the law is misapplied. Judicial review is meant to be a last resort for those seeking to redress a decision of an administrative decision maker.
It’s alarming that the identity of the companies who failed to protect consumers from this food adulteration may end up being concealed from the public, depending on the findings of the judicial review. Food adulteration, whether unintentional or fraudulent, is not victimless. What is at stake is the entire food economy. Consumer trust is being lost – the industry also hurts itself since it’s unlikely that consumers will pay more for a product they suspect may be adulterated. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) recommends that voluntary audit and improved detection programs are a deterrence to food transparency issues. Suppliers are encouraged to facilitate appropriate testing procedures and retailers to partner with academia to forecast risk, and with suppliers and manufacturers to verify authenticity of the products they receive. It sure sounds like the retailers who distributed these sausages have no testing/audit programs of their own to verify that the labelling accurately represents the contents of the products they purchase!
We know that despite horsemeat being consumed in Quebec and a few restaurants throughout the country, the only way to sell large quantities of it is to disguise it as something else. Clearly the demand for horsemeat is not there in the marketplace, otherwise it could be sold as-is.
Let’s hope that the protection of brand integrity does not supercede the rights of consumers.