Frozen meals sold in Britain as containing mostly beef have actually contained mostly horse. How did this happen and what’s being done about it? Simon Wilson reports.
How does horsemeat end up in beef lasagne?
Criminal fraud, close to or right at the start of the supply chain. The economic downturn means that far more horses are being sent to the abattoir: the lower price of horsemeat relative to beef, pressure to cut costs, and the over-supply of horses, have all tempted the unscrupulous to take advantage. And tortuously long supply chains in the food industry have allowed them to get away with it.
This is not an issue unique to the meat industry either: British inspectors are regularly called out, for example, to investigate sacks of expensive basmati rice bulked out with cheaper stuff, and olive oil diluted with vegetable oil. The EU’s Operation Opson in 2011, across ten countries, including Britain, seized 13,000 bottles of dodgy olive oil, 30 tonnes of fake tomato sauce, 77,000kg of counterfeit cheese and 30,000 cheap chocolate bars being passed off as quality bars.
How did the current scandal start?
Irish food safety officials suspected that cheap meat from the growing number of unwanted horses being slaughtered in Ireland was finding its way into the food chain. Their initial discovery, that a Tesco value burger sold in Britain contained 29% horsemeat, was not thought to relate to Irish horses. Nonetheless, last year in Ireland 25,000 horses were sent for slaughter, compared to just 2,000 in 2008.
Meanwhile in Spain, the volume of horsemeat produced in 2012 was 56% higher than in 2011. There has even been a suggestion (from José Bové, the vice-president of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee) that a big factor in the surge in horsemeat is a law (six years old but only recently enforced) that bans horses and donkeys from roads in Romania. That may have encouraged many people, used to driving by horse and cart, to give up their animals.
Isn’t meat supposed to be traceable?
After the BSE crisis, the EU developed a traceability regime that it trumpets as one of the safest in the world. All fresh meat on sale in an EU butcher or supermarket has markings on it that means the authorities can quickly identify where the animal was reared and slaughtered. Nevertheless, a series of food scares has highlighted the complex nature of food-industry supply chains.
With ingredients and subcontractors often crossing national borders, European regulators may no longer be able to cope. For example, in one case a scare over dioxin-contaminated eggs and pastries in Britain was traced back to contaminated chicken feed in Germany. And in 2011, at least 22 people were killed in Germany and 2,000 made ill by bean sprouts. At first Spanish farmers were held responsible, but eventually the dodgy sprouts were traced to Egypt.
What about in the current case?
Until this week, the current scare involved the adulteration of processed foods – not covered by the strict traceability rules. For processed products such as beef lasagne, or Findus pancakes, firms have to disclose the type of meat used, but not its origins, and the current crisis has shone a light on the tortuous supply chains in the meat industry.
The frozen “beef” meals – containing anything from a trace of horsemeat up to 100% horse – that were sold in supermarkets in Britain, France and Sweden, were processed in a Luxembourg factory owned by the French company Comigel, which got the meat from another French supplier, Spangero.
French authorities say that Spangero’s parent company, Poujol, bought the frozen meat from a Dutch trader acting as a subcontractor to a Cypriot company that sourced meat from a Romanian abattoir. Comigel’s president says he was not even aware that his supplier, Spangero, was sourcing meat from outside France. The scope for “mislabelling” – or indeed outright criminal fraud – is obvious.
What will the short-term impact be?
Trade publication Farmers Weekly reported this week that many local butchers are seeing a boost to sales of about 10%. “We have had many customers come in asking if we have a traceability policy in place,” one Harrogate butcher told Farmers Weekly. “I tell them ‘beef comes from Frank, pigs come from Colin and all the lambs come from my brother, Andrew.”
However, as Brindon Addy, chairman of an independent butchers’ guild, notes: “When the media reporting has subsided, may people forget these issues and return to convenience shopping at the supermarket.” However, many are not so sure.
On Tuesday, police officers and Food Standards Agency officials raided the Peter Boddy abattoir in West Yorkshire (one of only five in Britain licensed to slaughter horses) and a meat processing plant in Aberystwyth after horse meat was found in burgers and kebabs linked to the plants. That’s the first time a British abattoir has been linked to the scandal – which may increase the likelihood of a collapse in confidence in the whole processed-meat market.
Is regulation being beefed up?
Quite the opposite. While the government has blamed the horsemeat scandal on a “criminal conspiracy”, many farmers see it as a symptom of a low-cost food culture encouraged by aggressive supermarkets and hard-pressed consumers, says Louise Lucas in the FT. Yet just as risks are rising, regulators’ ability to catch offenders is being threatened by budget cuts.
The number of British meat inspectors has roughly halved since the 1990s peak to 800 – although the Food Standards Agency argues that this has been offset by greater efficiency. Even so, the number of tests carried out on food samples has fallen by 13% a year in each of the past two years.