Friday, 15 February 2013

EU: ''Horsemeat Scandal'': Horse DNA found in some products in UK

This week the scandal over horsemeat in hamburgers and lasagne has spread beyond Britain, revealing cracks in the Continent's food supply chain. Authorities are now trying to trace the meat's circuitous path across Europe to prevent future problems.

The horsemeat was first discovered in frozen hamburgers, but later in lasagne and more recently in the spaghetti product. In Britain, people are starting ask whether it is possible to eat frozen foods with a good conscience. For days now the ground horsemeat scandal has been leading the headlines as the main political issue in the country. On Tuesday, the House of Commons spent its second day in a row debating practices in European meat production that can get dicey.

And now the scandal is spreading. Traces of horsemeat have also since been discovered in other countries, including supermarkets in France and Sweden.

Nowhere has the outrage been as great as in Great Britain. Angered members of parliament have demanded a freeze on meat imports from the Continent. Euroskeptics in the country have also taken advantage of the opportunity to attack the EU as some kind of uncontrollable behemoth. "The EU single market is an invitation to fraud," commented Bernard Jenkin, a conservative member of parliament.

The British tabloid Sun has reported that a "grim Romanian slaughterhouse built with EU cash" has been one of the sources of the horsemeat at the center of the scandal. During a debate in parliament on Tuesday, Environment Secretary Owen Peterson, whose portfolio also includes agriculture and food, lambasted what he called a "criminal action" from abroad that led to a situation in which thousands of unwitting British people had eaten burgers or lasagne containing horsemeat. Over the weekend, he had already warned of an "international conspiracy."

But it appears that British firms have been caught conducting similarly deceptive practices. Officials at the government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) and police on Tuesday inspected horse slaughterhouses in Yorkshire County and a meat plant in Wales. Both companies are alleged to have used horsemeat in kebabs and burgers.

The British government is now on the defensive after ignoring the first case of deceptive labelling one month ago. In mid-January, horsemeat was discovered in frozen hamburger meat sold at discount supermarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Today, in a public letter, 11 firms, including Tesco and Asda, said they shared shoppers ''anger and outrage''. Several retailers say results so far show no sign of horsemeat, but Compass Group and pub supplier Whitbread have found horse DNA in some products. Meanwhile, the results of up one third of tests on the presence of horsemeat in processed meals ordered by the Food Standards Agency are being released.

It appears that improved monitoring is in fact needed. So far the British government assumes there are two isolated cases. Irish firm Silvercrest Foods supplied horsemeat in the hamburgers in question. And French producer Comigel provided ground meat with the lasagne and Spaghetti Bolognese.

Things start to get murky with the convoluted route taken from a slaughterhouse in Romania to supermarket shelves in Britain, a supply chain so complicated it has shocked many in the country. The Luxembourg-based Comigel subsidiary Tavola had ordered the ground meat for the lasagne from Spanghero, a subsidiary of France's Poujol. The parent company had acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader who had subcontracted the order to a Dutch firm that ultimately obtained the horsemeat from a slaughterhouse in Romania.

The question that must now be addressed is the point where the meat got mislabelled in this long supply chain. So far, all the intermediaries involved are refusing to accept responsibility. The men who run the slaughterhouse, who happen to be the brothers of Romania's agriculture minister, have even presented receipts indicating the horsemeat had been correctly identified as such at the time they sold it. Seeking to contain possible damage to the country's image, Prime Minister Victor Ponta is warning against making his country the EU's scapegoat, as often happens.

Since the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in the 1990s, systems have been put in place that allow every kilo of meat in the EU to be tracked to its precise origin. But apparently that alone is not enough to stop acts of deception.

The horsemeat scandal has shown how complex the UK's meat supply chain has become, and it also highlights how little retailers and customers alike know what is actually going into the food that we eat.

The British government believes that too much in the EU internal market is based on trust. Politicians are now calling for regular spot checks in the future instead of relying on the information supplied on shipping documents. The prospect of large fines might also force the industry rethink its practices. Many of the companies affected in the scandal are now considering suing their suppliers.

For now, though, politicians and experts alike are offering some simple advice for Britain's consumers: Buy British.

By Guylain Gustave Moke