A Birmingham laboratory is pioneering work to ensure that horse meat is kept off shop shelves. Emma McKinney reports.
Stewart Davis’s face is etched with concentration as he waits for the device in front of him to whir into life.
The scientist has been quietly squirrelling away in a Birmingham laboratory for the last two months, working tirelessly to check whether beef products made and sold in the city are all they are cracked up to be.
Since February, 177 meat samples taken from an array of businesses across the city, including restaurants, takeaways, wholesalers and food manufacturers, have found their way to the Birmingham City Council-run labs.
Most people may be blissfully unaware of the Garretts Green-based facility – but the ground-breaking department is working quietly away in a bid to protect consumers.
With a team of 25 scientists and specialists, the laboratory is dedicated to putting all manner of items under the microscope in an effort to keep hazardous products out of harm’s way.
And it has been working around the clock to test so-called beef products for all kinds of meat, including horse, poultry, pork and lamb. Mr Davis said: “We take a 25g sample of meat and put it into a machine called a stomacher, which mashes it up.
‘‘We leave it to settle and then take the liquid from the top of it and test it. If the sample turns yellow we know it contains something it shouldn’t.”
Mr Davis’s tests come after consumers across the land were flung into a state of panic in mid-January when food inspectors discovered horse meat in beefburgers made by firms in Ireland, which were being sold by a number of UK supermarkets.
It sparked a major probe by watchdog the Food Standards Agency, which enlisted the help of 28 local authorities across the country – including Walsall Council.
As a result, more than 200 million products have been withdrawn from sale in the UK and firms including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi, Lidl, Findus, Ikea, Burger King, Asda and Co-op have been affected by the saga.
The Ministry of Justice also suspended a prison meat supplier after it was discovered Halal pies and pasties may have contained traces of pork DNA.
And schools in Sandwell, Staffordshire and Walsall have stopped serving some beef meals to pupils.
Despite being under no duty to test produce, Birmingham City Council’s environmental health team decided to embark on its own investigation into horsemeat. Nick Lowe, the council’s food operations manager, said: “I felt that, as we are a big metropolitan area with lots of consumers, the community would want to be reassured that we were doing something.
“We have a very diverse population, we wanted to test for both horse meat and pork to look at the issues that would also impact on people who follow faiths that do not permit them to eat certain foods.
“We also wanted to ensure our schools and meals on wheels services were not unwittingly serving pork or horsemeat in beef products.”
And the work has paid off. So far, four beef products have tested positive for horse meat, while others have been found to contain pork.
Hundreds of burgers made by a Small Heath-based manufacturer, which supplies to retailers and restaurants across the West Midlands, have been recalled.
And two convenience stores in Kings Norton and Acocks Green have been caught selling Findus beef lasagnes – despite the fact they were banned nearly two months ago by the FSA after they were found to contain horse meat.
The lab will spend the next 12 months carrying out tests on a series of products collected across the city.
“We will carry out monthly blitzes,” added Mr Lowe.
“We’ll look at things such as food colourings in sweets produced locally, meat contained in meals at hospitals, nursing and residential homes and food sold at schools, colleges and universities.
‘‘Food effects each and every single one of us, I think it’s vitally important we ensure people know what they are eating is safe.”