Horsemeat scandal highlights lack of traceability
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The discovery of horsemeat in "beef" lasagna sold by a European frozen food conglomerate has revealed the uncertainty surrounding the production of frozen meals. An investigation is underway into where exactly the error, or fraud, occurred.
There is no health risk, as the spokesman for the European Commission has repeated.
But the discovery of horsemeat in “beef” lasagna produced by Europe-wide frozen food conglomerate Findus and sold in the UK could mask some serious problems, according to Jacques La Cacheux, an agricultural economist at the French Economic Observatory (OFCE).
The food-labelling scandal has indeed created an uproar in the beef industry and among consumers, with many supermarkets removing the affected frozen meals from their stock.
Britain's food safety regulator has raided a slaughterhouse and a meat processing firm after finding evidence they sold horsemeat labeled as beef. The Food Standards Agency says the Peter Boddy slaughterhouse in northern England and Farmbox Meats in west Wales - which it supplied - had both been shut down.
Benoît Hamon, the French minister for consumer affairs, told reporters after an emergency meeting on February 11 that it was too early to say whether this was a case of “negligence” or “deliberate fraud”, and that more information would be available within 48 hours. Anti-fraud investigators have already begun inspections of multiple food production sites in France.
Horsemeat, once eaten rather commonly in France, has become increasingly rare on French menus and in French food markets, though horse butchers still exist.
But the latest scandal over meat has revealed the uncertainty that surrounds the sale of horsemeat, especially when it comes to pre-prepared frozen meals. The main problem that has come to light is that when meat is just one ingredient among others in a frozen meal, the producers are not legally obligated to communicate it.
A lack of ‘traceability’
“90% of the animals slaughtered for consumption in France is sold as fresh meat in butcher shops and supermarkets, and the system is very strictly controlled ever since the “mad cow” disease crisis in the 1990s,” explained meat industry specialist René Laporte, author of a book called “La viande voit rouge” (or “Meat Seeing Red”). “Frozen meals use the 10% remaining, which consist of spare bits and connective tissue that is placed in 10-kilogram plastic bags, frozen, packaged in boxes, and sold to the food industry.”
But according to the specialist, while beef used in frozen food is just as traceable as beef sold by butchers (it goes from the slaughterhouse to the chopping block, and each animal is clearly identified), equivalent scraps of horsemeat are not necessarily subject to the same procedures and transparency. “The beef industry ended up benefiting from the ‘mad cow’ crisis in the 1990s,” Le Cacheux said. “On the other hand, the lack of transparency and traceability is flagrant when it comes to poultry, pork and horse meat.”
The investigation into the lasagna scandal will aim to identify where exactly blame for the error, or fraud, lies: with the producer in Romania (which Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has denied), the initial salespeople (which René Laporte has deemed unlikely), the processors who prepared the meat to be used as an ingredient, or the frozen meal company Findus that added the meat to its frozen meals.
“Meat makes its way through a very complex chain of steps in the industry,” Le Cacheux explained. “Over the past several years, the priority has been getting meat for the lowest price possible, no matter where it comes from.”
Consumers and livestock farmers ‘in the dark’
The latest mishap has shaken consumers used to trusting a particular brand to exercise vigilance when it comes to tracing the meat used. “A brand is just a name on the package of a product prepared by suppliers in a factory,” Le Cacheux said. “A brand like Findus…depends on providers to control quality, and those providers only do so intermittently.”
Findus has filed a complaint and released a statement to the press reading: “How is it possible that in 2013 horsemeat could be sold with a French label advertising it as beef?”
But according to Laporte, Findus can hardly claim innocence. “It should be automatic to monitor the product,” he said. “When I receive 20 tons of meat, I don’t just close my eyes and hand over the money. Certain elementary rules of this job were not respected.”
French livestock farmers are using the horsemeat scandal to voice their demand: that ready-made and frozen meals clarify how exactly the meat went from the slaughterhouse to the supermarket. “Things need to change. We need transparency, and we especially need to prioritise French meat.” said François Thabius, president of the “Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers), a union for farmers under age 35. “Our job is so full of go-betweens. In this situation, it’s not only consumers who are in the dark, but also livestock farmers who don’t even know where their meat is going anymore.”