Speaking earlier this week, environment secretary Owen Paterson said he hoped for "meaningful results" from the tests by Friday, but experts warned the flood in the demand is slowing the process down, and may shed little light on food safety even when they are delivered.
A source at one retailer said: "There are simply not enough labs in the world to get all the tests done that the FSA have asked for. We are trying to help, but it's just unrealistic." Another who attended the emergency meeting called by DEFRA into the horsemeat scandal added: "We told them [the Government] that it would be challenging to meet the deadline on Friday and they changed their position from wanting everything tested to just providing the results of tests we had already done."
The process of determining which species of animals are contained in a given ready meal sample typically takes around a day, but with the sudden surge of products to test, turnaround is up to about three days, according to one laboratory involved in the current tests.Research by the food and drink magazine The Grocer and analytics company BrandView has found more than 600 separate product lines in need of testing across just four of the major retailers – 150 branded lines and 433 own-brand products. As each product may require multiple samples in order to deliver a clean bill of health, this could represent a backlog of thousands of products across the country in need of testing.
However, when results arrive, they may offer less comfort than consumers intend. Each separate species must be tested for separately: if you don't look for a particular animal's DNA, you won't know whether it is present or not.
The FSA has only required the industry to look for traces of horse in beef products – so if the products were to contain lamb, pork, poultry or any other animal, this would not show in the results when they are published.
Consider it and weep. Were there no officials in DEFRA or the Agency able to advise them on the inadequacy of the testing programme? Or were Ministers and the Agency so desperate to be seen to be doing something (anything really) that they ignored (or did not ask for) advice?