Food Chains

21 February 2013, 07:00

Tests have shown that many products sold as beef have in fact contained large quantities of horsemeat. European Union agriculture ministers have met in emergency session, supermarkets have seen mass boycotts of their products and government inspectors have raided farms and meat processing plants. What is going on in the food industry?

Luckily, European consumers are not at risk of poisoning. Horsemeat is perfectly safe to eat. In former years it was widely eaten, especially in countries such as France where it was considered a delicacy. Many European butchers used to specialise in horsemeat. The scandal today is about fraud – on a massive international scale. Investigations have traced a web of farms, abbatoirs and meat traders across Europe that make up an extraordinary long supply chain, which has been used to perpetrate a massive deception of shoppers across the continent. Somewhere along this chain, it is now clear, unscrupulous middlemen are selling cheap horse meat labelled as beef, a much more expensive meat. No one has yet found where the blame lies. What is clear, however, is that meat production, like other big food industries, is now a complex multinational affair, where there is little transparency, little regulation and only the barest chances of enforcing agreed standards and honest labelling. And to the question "Do you know what you are eating and where it is from?" the only answer most consumers can now give is "No".


The scandal began in Northern Ireland in September, when environmental health and safety officers found frozen boxed beef, allegedly imported from Poland, with fraudulent labels. Two months later, the food safety authority of Ireland began DNA tests on beef products sold in the Republic of Ireland. These revealed that 10 of 28 beefburger samples contained horsemeat. The findings were published in January, and a few days later one big food company suspended production at a subsidiary in Ireland. The same day some 10 million burgers were withdrawn from sale in many supermarkets in Britain. On February 7, Findus, a multinational food company based in Sweden, removed all beef lasagne from shelves in Britain after tests showed that up to 100 per cent of horsemeat was used in some their products. The next day spaghetti and lasagne produced in France were banned after it was found that the meat came from abbatoirs in Romania via a company in the Netherlands. On February 13 the scandal spread to Germany, where lasagne and cheeseburgers were also removed from sale. The row had spread across the continent. EU officials gave a controversial ruling that Britain could not ban meat products from abroad, because no safety issue had been found. But consumers were by now furious. EU ministers met in Brussels to discuss the crisis. Brussels has ordered all 27 EU members to carry out DNA tests on beef products to see if they contain any horsemeat.

Two big worries have angered consumers. The first is the possible presence in horsemeat of the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, known as "bute", which is banned from the food chain. The second worry is that old horses, bred and groomed for racing, are possibly being slaughtered and used for meat products at an age much higher than most animals killed for meat.
Governments have reacted angrily to accusations of negligence and blamed the food companies. Romania said it had nothing to hide and that its authorised horsemeat butchers were not to blame. Farms in Britain that legitimately deal in horsemeat also said that they had not allowed any cross contamination with beef. But the price difference is considerable: horse sells for 800 euros a tonne and beef is worth at least 3,500 euros a tonne. Someone, somewhere, is fraudulently making a lot of money from the difference.

Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Cyprus and Luxembourg have also been drawn into the row. As one BBC commentator explained: "The Swedish firm Findus employs a French firm Comigel to make its ready meals. It gets meat for its factory in Luxembourg from another French company, Spanghero. And that company in turn employs an agency in Cyprus, who uses an agent in the Netherlands to source meat from an abbatoir in Romania". No one used to buying some beef or lamb from a local farmer could ever imagine such a complicated supply chain that stretches all round Europe.

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The situation has arisen because of the ever growing demand for meat from rich consumers in the West. But at the same time these consumers are very unwilling to pay more for their food. And as multinational supermarket chains have taken over an ever larger share of the food market, they have kept prices low by sourcing their products from more and more different sources – now possible because of refrigerated transport and efficient distribution systems. Three generations ago, most shoppers bought food, especially meat, from nearby farms. Shoppers knew the farmers and knew which products were sold in local shops. People also used to eat meat from all different parts of an animal – liver, stomach, kidneys, brains, tongues and even intestines. No longer. The demand now is only for the "best" cuts of meat – prime steak or ribs. And today's consumers in much of Europe no longer eat much goat, horse or any animal except cows, sheep, pigs, deer, chickens, turkeys and ducks. That means that a lot of meat on a cow is potentially wasted. So abbatoirs now strip off every scrap of meat from other parts of the animal, grind it down and sell it to make sausages, lasagne, burgers or any product where it is unclear what the meat is or where it has come from. This keeps the price cheap and keeps the meat industry profitable.

Food scares are not new. In some countries there have been frauds that were not only scandalous but deadly. More than 600 people were killed and and many more paralysed in Spain in 1981 by olive oil that was mixed with industrial oil. In Austria, one of the most popular brands of wine was found in 1985 to contain diethylene glycol, an anti-freeze used for cars. And in China there was a huge outcry five years ago when it was found that powdered milk used to feed babies had been deliberately adulterated with melamine, with the result that 300,000 children were affected and 52,000 had to go to hospital. Several Chinese officials were executed because of the fraud. Across Europe there have also been regular instances of food being contaminated with dioxin. And there are regular cases of industrial alcohol being used for the illegal production of liquor, often with tragic consequences leading to blindness and liver disease.

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There are two main reasons for these threats to food. One is negligence and the failure to keep out harmful chemicals during the processing or preservation of food, more common nowadays than before. The other is criminal conspiracies to produce food more cheaply by, for example, adding banned substances to animal feed or injecting water into slaughtered animals to increase the weight of meat. The fear of industrialised food production has made many people suspicious of pre-packaged foods and has stimulated the demand for local and organic foods bought at markets. And as the horsemeat scandal spreads across Europe, a survey found that almost half of all consumers in Britain would boycott the supermarkets named. Instead they are turning again to traditional butchers, with sales rising up to 30 per cent in some small family-run butchers' shops.

The supermarkets are alarmed at the damage to their reputation. They swiftly issued statements apologising for the scandal. Their losses from the meat products withdrawn are negligible, however, compared to the vast losses they would make if the public lost confidence in the safety of their food products. In the end, perhaps, the responsiblity lies with the consumer. For centuries, housewives knew how to inspect food before buying it, and only bought what they knew was fresh and safe. Today that responsibility has been handed over to huge anonymous industrialised food companies. Perhaps it is time shoppers took back responsibility – even if it means paying more for meat. 

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