The European Food Industry’s Horse Meat Scandal

Since Irish food inspectors detected horse meat in beef burgers at the end of last year, similar incidents have occurred in 13 European countries. Retailers have removed beef products from their shelves as concern over the contamination and the origin of the horse meat has escalated.

Unlike recent food safety scandals concerning dioxin, BSE, melamine, and dicyandiamide, the presence of horse meat in convenience foods is not currently considered to be a food safety issue. The problem is rather fraudulent labeling for economic gain, which contravenes European law. A criminal investigation is underway.

“There is no excuse for contaminated meat products, but species identification issues are not linked just to horse meat and beef burgers,” says Rob Parrish, vice president, Global Food SGS. “This scandal clearly demonstrates the importance to both the industry and consumers of ensuring that the species a company orders, and pays for, is the species a company receives.”

Consumer Protection is Paramount

Anecdotal evidence in the U.K. reports a significant number of consumers choosing to exclude meat from their diet completely as a direct result of the scandal. Sales of convenience foods and beef burgers have dropped considerably in some markets as consumers react to concerns about ongoing product safety, despite the reassurances of manufacturers, retailers, and governments.

Ministers of Public Health have agreed that the European Commission recommendation on labeling the origin of all processed meat should be accelerated and published as soon as possible.

Retailers and manufacturers have also initiated species identification testing programs to identify any adulteration and, at the same time, to reassure regulators and consumers.

“Even before this affair we saw increasing demand for species identification on food products in the last year,” says Parrish. “To help clients deliver high quality, safe products, that are correctly labeled, SGS is completing the planned expansion of its global capabilities, creating competence centers in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.”

Transparency Across the Supply Chain

The retailers and manufacturers affected by this scandal have, by and large, been well- known brands, and confidence in their supply chains has been affected. The food industry’s exemplary certification and regulation programs have proven vulnerable to the criminal intent of a small minority of actors in the supply chain. Initially hesitant to comment or to engage with consumers and the media, these industry leaders have now begun to act, and must continue to do so to reinforce the veracity and transparency of their supply chain. Failure to do so suggests guilt by association and feeds the continued breakdown of trust among end consumers, retailers, and manufacturers.

Industry and governments across Europe are conducting DNA testing on meat, both in the supply chain and in existing products, to check for the presence of horse meat.

“Species identification alone is not the only answer to safeguard against adulterated product entering the food supply chain,” according to Parrish. “Implementing rigorous traceability programs is a must to assure the authenticity of products all through the supply chain.”

Fit for Human Consumption?

In Europe’s ongoing meat contamination problems, food safety may nevertheless be at issue. It is not clear whether the horse meat discovered was intended for human consumption. If not, it could contain the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, a sedative for domestic and sporting horses which is harmful to human health. This, as well as other questions concerning the origin of the horse meat, widen the scope of the scandal from labelling fraud to food safety risks.

Market Malaise

The scandal goes beyond the mislabeling of meat products to give credence to a wider malaise about the sheer scale of global food supply chains. Consumers have generally assumed that unless it is “locally sourced” their food is produced elsewhere and transported reasonable distances before reaching the retail outlet. Incidents such as this one reveal just how little they know about where their food comes from and how it reaches the supermarket shelves. The focus on globalization by the food production, processing, and manufacturing industries has arguably disconnected consumers from their food and its origins.

Food suppliers and retailers must work together to rebuild consumer confidence. Tougher testing regimes and stricter regulation will contribute to reassuring nervous customers, but the catastrophic breakdown of trust caused by the horse meat scandal will take time to heal.

Regulation and Certification

Regulation and certification schemes are designed to ensure that appropriate policies, processes and documentation are in place within the food supply chain. In order to be effective, such schemes require the participation and support of all industry players, not only in monitoring their own behavior, but also in being aware of the potential for errors and/or fraudulent activity.

Although not entirely immune to criminal intent, certification schemes such as FSSC 22000, IFS, BRC Global Standard for Food Safety, and SQF must nonetheless be implemented at every point along the supply chain to confirm system compliance. Spot checks, ad hoc testing, and investing in the continuous development of staff and systems are all tools that may be employed to prevent, or at least reduce, the risk of a similar scandal occurring in the future.

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