Why the meat supply chain must adopt a 'criminal' mentality

As the horse DNA contamination scandal continues to unfold, retailers, suppliers and regulators face increasingly probing questions about why they did not see the problem coming - and what they plan to do to stop similar incidents in the future.

So far, there has been a lot of focus on DNA tests for different species - especially horse - as a key tool in the fight against mislabelling and contamination. But, as The Grocer has highlighted previously, DNA tests aren’t cheap and widespread species testing has the potential to add significant additional supply chain costs.

Plus, while DNA species tests are undeniably useful in diagnosing what has gone wrong once it has gone wrong, they can be less useful as a preventative tool. “DNA tests come into play after the horse has already bolted,” says Jeremy Boxall, commercial manager at the Leaf farm certification scheme.

So, what other tools should retailers and suppliers look at?

Unsurprisingly given his role at Leaf, Boxall is keen to stress the role certification can play in keeping tabs on supply chains. But, more generally, he says retailers need to make sure they aren’t too remote from what’s happening with their products. “The key term here is chain of custody - having a really clear understanding of what each company involved in the chain has to do for traceability, and how records are kept,” he says.

Retailers should also try to keep supply chains short and uncomplicated, says Boxall, buying as close to the customer as possible. But, of course, such buying practices aren’t always feasible - or affordable - for all products modern grocery supply chains are often complex and international. To get a handle, retailers and suppliers have to fundamentally change the way they think about risk, believes Tony Hines, head of corporate and member services at Leatherhead Food Research.

He uses ‘temptation analysis’ to help identify opportunities and incentives for people to stray outside agreed standards and practices. “Companies need to think less like food technologists and more like criminals,” he says.

There is no evidence at this stage that criminality was involved in the current horse meat issue, but this is about a general state of mind, says Hines. “Ask yourself, if someone wanted to make a quick buck from my product, how could they abuse the system? What materials would they use, and how likely would it be to get away with it?”

‘Horizon scanning’ is also key, say experts. The British Retail Consortium is particularly keen on better intelligence gathering at a European level. “We are already members of the FSA’s Emerging Risks Consultative Group which is a useful forum for exchanging information on future risks in the supply chain,” says a spokeswoman. “However, we feel the FSA needs to ensure there is more sharing of information between regulators at a European level.”

Then there’s studying past incidents. There have been adulteration problems related to horse meat before, and a quick look at history should have told supply chain managers horse was a risk, says Hines. “You need to know the previous history, so you can see patterns.”

Meanwhile, Ronan Loftus, co-founder of Identigen, says companies should broaden their understanding of how DNA tests can be used in supply chains - and testing for individual species isn’t necessarily the best approach. “We are already using tests to monitor supply chains by checking the DNA of the raw material at one end matches the DNA of the finished product at the other end,” he says. “This approach can be a very cost-effective way of ensuring there hasn’t been a breakdown in traceability.”

Experts agree the key is sending a message to everyone that they are being checked. “Make your suppliers are aware that you’re aware of the risks and the issues,” says Hines, while “The very concept of continuous monitoring can be very powerful,” adds Loftus. And with the horse headlines showing no sign of going away, those checks are only likely to increase.