“‘Horsemeat in lasagna or will they Findus, as one horse said to another’ was a running joke in Europe a couple years ago,” says Ivar Vågsholm, DVM, PhD, a professor of food safety in the Department of Biomedicine and Veterinary Public Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden. “The joke arose from the horsemeat scandal, which was a real eye opener on the issue of food fraud and adulteration of foods within the European Union (EU).”
No horsin’ around, it was arguably the most prominent and widespread European food fraud scandal in recent years. The tale erupted in mid-January 2013 when Irish food inspectors announced that they had found horsemeat in frozen beef burgers. Subsequently, the U.K. informed the European Commission (EC) on Feb. 8, 2013 that a U.K. company, Findus UK, which bills itself as is one of Europe’s largest frozen food and seafood companies with leading brands, had been selling beef lasagna supplied by a French company, (Comigel-Tavola Luxembourg) which tests showed contained between 80 percent to100 percent horsemeat.
It was determined the horsemeat originated in a Romanian abattoir and was provided to Comigel-Tavola, which had reportedly stipulated that all of its meat orders exclusively required 100 percent certified beef, via a meat-processing company called Spanghero based in southwestern France.
At that time, French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoît Hamon stated the meat had left Romania clearly and correctly labeled as horse and that it was afterwards that it was knowingly relabeled as beef by Spanghero. It is purported that financial gain is behind this fraudulent activity, given that horsemeat is much cheaper than other meats, especially beef, in some countries.
Findus UK did recall all its products that were impacted by the fraudulently labeled horsemeat and issued a public apology.
Other prominent food companies were also impacted by mislabeled horsemeat.
As an initial response, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy Tonio Borg announced, at the beginning of March 2013, a five-point action plan to be carried out over the short, medium, and longer term.
Relative to point one, food fraud, the EC has, as it highlights on its website, completed mapping of existing tools and mechanisms to fight food fraud, including developing synergies and contacts among competent authorities. An ongoing effort is underway to ensure a procedure for the rapid exchange of information and alerts in cases of violations that may constitute a fraud.
Point two, a testing program protocol has been completed. This testing assesses and presents the results of the ongoing DNA monitoring, along with ongoing monitoring of horsemeat for residues of phenylbutazone and, if necessary, undertakes appropriate follow-up measures.
Point three, a horse passport program has been completed that includes rules and controls on the identification of horses and the measures that must be taken to prevent that meat from unidentified horses enter the food chain, in particular by verifying how the passport of treated horses is completed following administration of phenylbutazone.
Point four, official controls have been developed and implemented, and penalties have been developed. This includes coordinated testing programs in specific cases, in particular in case of fraud.
Point five, origin labeling, is in place and ongoing. The intent is to prevent misleading use of voluntary origin labeling in foods.
More specifically, EU actions on fraud, as clarified for Food Quality & Safety by the EC, include 1.) the creation of an EU Food Fraud Network comprised of representatives from the EC, member states, plus Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland, 2.) the development (work still on-going) of a dedicated IT tool, similar to the RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food), which enables the members of the network to rapidly exchange information and data on potential cases of cross-border fraud, 3.) specialized training offered from 2014 to food inspectors, police and customs officers, and judicial authorities concerning new investigation/control techniques related to food fraud and more effective cross-agencies cooperation at national level, 4.) special attention being given at the EU level to develop enhanced laboratory analysis capabilities, through the pooling of knowledge and resources available in the member states and the development of specialized research programs, and 5.) a better coordination at the EU level of all services dealing with matters relating to food fraud.
Before all of this, and to its credit, in October 2010, the EC initiated a “fitness check” exercise designed to review an entire body of legislation in a certain policy area with the purpose of identifying excessive burdens, overlaps, gaps, inconsistencies, and/or obsolete measures.
To that end, the food chain was identified as one of four pilot projects for a fitness check, which culminated in publication of a Dec. 18, 2013 document titled “A Fitness Check of the Food Chain.” This “Fitness Check” provided the ground work for the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme, which was introduced at the end of 2012, the EC tells Food Quality & Safety, mentioning that the “Fitness Check” served as both an overall assessment by establishing the state of play and, at the same time, as an initial mapping exercise outlining the next steps.
One of several conclusions drawn in the “Fitness Check” report was “the absence of some important elements in legislation.” The report stated, “Typically, this was the case of dealing with food fraud, which was ‘left’ to other legislation (criminal law, fraud, etc.) implemented by other official bodies (such as the police). Analysis of the situation and lessons learned from the recent food scandals showed clearly that effectively dealing with a problem is impossible without the participation of official authorities in the food sector, which are only capable of providing the necessary information flow to enforcement authorities. This area needs further exploration.”
On Dec. 17, 2013, the EC published a report on the possibility of extending mandatory origin labeling to meat as an ingredient. According to the EC when queried by Food Quality & Safety, the main purpose of this particular report was to set out in a neutral and objective manner all relevant facts in order to launch an informed and fruitful discussion both with the European Parliament and the Council. The report itself did not suppose or imply any a priori position of the EC on the subject, the EC notes.
Responding to Food Quality & Safety when asked for any available updates, the EC says that on Feb. 11, 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling the EC to introduce mandatory origin labeling for meat as an ingredient. The EC states that “it has taken note of the European Parliament’s resolution and is currently reflecting on the best way forward.”
Without question, Europe’s horsemeat scandal may have brought food fraud to greater light, but other food fraud activities have been and continue to be newsworthy and potentially dangerous to humans and animals, Dr. Vågsholm emphasizes.
“Prior to the 2013 horsemeat scandal, the importance of food fraud was not really fully appreciated,” he says. “The episode of horsemeat in lasagna has been a real wake up call. However, food fraud has probably always been happening, and several other incidents have helped to highlight the issue of food fraud in recent years. These include mislabeling a cheaper fish product as more expensive one, labeling pork filet as beef filet, and using melamine as a fraudulent protein substitute in dog food or infant formula, as was done in China. There are strong incentives to cheat and the probability of being caught is perceived as low.”
Leake, doing business as Food Safety Ink, is a food safety consultant, auditor, and award-winning journalist based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at LLLeake@aol.com.
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