As horse meat stalks Europe, UAE confident it has no beef with standards

Like many chains worldwide, Spinneys was quick to react to the discovery that foods sold in European countries labelled as beef actually contained horse meat and pork.

A member of staff checks the fat content of minced beef at the Spinney's meat processing facility in Jebel Ali. Christopher Pike / The National
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In the halal area of Spinneys' meat production unit in Jebel Ali, 100 staff are preparing burgers, sausages, kebabs, meatballs and cuts of meat for the company's supermarkets.

Working from 7am to 4pm, the team churns out 25 tonnes of fresh meat products every day - a huge increase from the 100 kilograms a day the chain produced in 2005.

But while greater volumes are important for Spinneys, the most important issue is achieving high food-safety standards - something that will comfort UAE consumers in light of the horse meat scandal dominating European headlines.

"We are confident we won't face the same problems currently taking place in Europe," says Freda Molamphy, a product development manager for Spinneys. "From our point of view, consumers shopping at our stores have no worries."

Ms Molamphy has a right to be confident. The company has secured the approval of two international food-safety bodies and imports fresh beef from only two sources in Australia and New Zealand, shipping the cuts to the UAE where they process and package them themselves.

Like many chains worldwide, Spinneys was quick to react to the recent discovery that foods sold in the UK and other European countries labelled as beef actually contained horse meat and pork.

"In the wake of the scandal, our buyers were actively looking at food safety. We have regular checks anyway - we have to for our quality systems - and we are probably ahead of the markets in terms of international standards," says Colette Shannon, a spokeswoman for Spinneys.

The chain's fresh meat has 100 per cent traceability, meaning if a customer complains about a particular cut, it can be tracked back to the slaughterhouse and to the animal itself, even accessing an individual animal's veterinary records.

"We've never sold horse meat because there's never been a demand for it here. But because we deal specifically with those two farms and we import it fresh and process the meat here, there is no chance of contamination," adds Ms Shannon.

The scandal began last month when food inspectors in Ireland found burgers sold in some of the UK's largest supermarket chains contained horse meat.

Tests found products containing horse and pig DNA, with further analysis finding beef ready-meal products, including cottage pie and lasagne, contained the DNA of pigs.

This would be of particular concern in the UAE, where the Muslim population does not eat pork.

Since then, some processed beef products have found to contain up to 100 per cent horse meat.

France and Sweden have also been forced to admit similar results for its beef products and have withdrawn items.

Several French supermarket chains, including Carrefour, have removed some products from their shelves. While reports attributed the problem to the mixing of meats at two abattoirs in Romania, the country's prime minister, Victor Ponta, says his nation is not to blame.

It means countries around the world have had to act fast to ensure any meat - fresh, processed or frozen - meets safety standards.

"We are following up and we are aware of the situation," says Mohammed Al Reyaysai, a spokesperson for the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority. "If any country has any problem with a certain product, they send a notification and we are part of the list of countries that receives this notification.

"If we have any concern or any kind of suspicion, we can act immediately. But the concern is that we do not want people to panic. If there is any possibility of having these problems, we will remove the products from shelves immediately."

While it is believed no products have been removed from UAE shelves as yet, the Emirates already has tight import procedures in place because all meat other than pork must be halal - slaughtered according to Islamic principles.

"When you look at our range of frozen ready meals on the shop floor, we don't have a lot of meat-based products because of the halal issue," says Spinneys' Ms Shannon.

She admits the supermarket stocks Findus products - one of the brands affected by contamination - but only its vegetarian items.

At Geant, Carrefour and Al Maya in Dubai Marina, frozen beef products carry a halal stamp or sticker on the packaging. Most have been manufactured and packaged in the UAE or in other GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"All meat products sold in the country must be halal, including frozen products," says Mr Al Reyaysai. "All meats must come with the right paperwork to show they are halal. There is also a committee that travels around the world working with Islamic centres to make sure there is never a problem with the halal imports."

But as the scandal has highlighted, having a halal stamp on a product may not guarantee its safety.

"The UAE could be exposed and people should be worried," says Jerry Raju Thomas, the managing director at JRT Global, a food trade and distribution company that delivers 1.5 tonnes of produce to the Emirates every day. "Suppliers bringing meat in from factories must get certification that a product is halal but the only way to check it is by checking the processes in place at the factories. The factory could do a good job while the check is going on but the minute you leave you don't know what you are doing. We can never be 100 per cent sure."

However, Rajin Abdutty, a quality assurance manager at Al Kabeer Group of manufacturers, says it would be "very unlikely" any pork or horse meat would end up on UAE shelves labelled as beef. "There is a very big demand for halal meats so for a slaughterhouse to lose the business it would be bad," he says.

Al Kabeer Group, one the largest meat manufacturing companies in the UAE, imports a minimum of 100 containers of meat every month and supplies all the major supermarkets.

"The purchasing department staff are always visiting the meat suppliers to inspect their operations," Mr Abdutty says. "The frequency of inspections depends; it can be every month, or every two or three."

Dubai Municipality produces a global list of approved halal slaughterhouses, enabling meat manufacturing companies to ensure products meet UAE standards.

"Before our containers leave Dubai Port they are inspected by Dubai Municipality," Mr Abdutty says. "They don't inspect every container because that would be impossible but they take samples from random containers and will not allow it to enter the country until the results are back. If they find any issues, they can hold back [in the port] for resampling. Sometimes they come and take samples from our cold stores."

But Mr Thomas takes no chances. JRT Global used to import chilled beef, pork and lamb from the US, Brazil and Ireland but stopped a few weeks ago because of the scandal.

"There is no point doing it because of the risk," Mr Thomas says. "If the municipality checks it and finds something wrong with the meat you cannot send it back. The product is disposed of on the spot and that can lead to a huge monetary loss, so we don't bring it in anymore.

"While consuming horse meat doesn't harm anyone, when people are buying a burger or a lasagne mix, they believe it is 100 per cent beef, so trust is being lost."

Another supplier who did not want to be named claims consumers cannot always be 100 per cent sure what food they are eating.

He says some UAE industry members combine different lines of beef to cut costs, such as mixing Indian beef with Brazilian beef or Pakistani beef with Australian meat.

"It's very hard for the end consumer to find this out," he says. "You should buy a whole cut of meat and let them cut it in front of you. Don't buy chopped meat because unless it is tested there is no way of knowing."

The other risk facing the UAE meat industry is pork contamination.

"For the pork, we do have DNA testing already in our lab and we do this regularly to check for any meat contamination. We can tell from the DNA results whether we have any pork mix. We do this regularly, outside of what is happening in Europe," says Mr Al Reyaysai.At the Spinneys meat processing plant, processes are equally stringent. Pork products are handled in a completely separate facility in the factory, with non-halal and halal products unloaded and processed in separate areas and handled by different staff.

Anyone moving between the two units has to change into clean wellington boots, a new hairnet, mouth mask and freshly laundered padded overalls, plus re-disinfect their hands and boots.

With such stringent hygiene measures here, how the UK and Europe - a part of the world with the highest possible safety standards - failed to get it right is a mystery.

"Something went askew somewhere," says Ms Molamphy who worked for Tesco in Ireland until moving to the UAE two and a half years ago. "Their chains are quite big in terms of where they source whereas we just have the two sources, so it's easier to manage the integrity of the product. Everybody wants to do the right thing but sometimes things go wrong."

There is no doubt the scandal has served as a lesson for the food industry. "It makes people more aware of what can happen even if you are 110 per cent sure of your raw material and that keeps everybody on their toes," Ms Molamphy says.