Sunday 10 February 2013

The 2013 European horse meat scandal

My favourite "horsemeat meme". My only complaint is that cows
are generally more intelligent than the typical reactionary
"blame immigrants for everything" ranter!
In early 2013 the UK food industry was rocked by a huge scandal when tests confirmed that processed foods sold in numerous supermarkets and under the brand name Findus contained up to 100% Romanian horse meat instead of beef, as claimed on the packaging.

As a vegetarian and a person that generally tries to avoid eating processed food I have not been personally effected by the scandal in any way. I do however have my opinions on it.

The first and most obvious point is that it is completely immoral for suppliers to sell horse meat under false pretences. There is absolutely no excuse for making misleading claims on food packaging. If it says beef on the packet, then beef it should contain. Just as a chicken based ready meal should contain only chicken meat and a vegetarian ready meal should contain no meat at all. This scandal hasn't just damaged consumer faith in supposedly beef based ready meals, it has given consumers reason to doubt food packaging in general. If a giant brand name like Findus can get away with selling horse meat as beef for many months, you don't need to be a die-hard cynic to begin wondering whether other processed foods might be contaminated with unstated ingredients.

Another point worth mentioning is that many "beef products", including meat pies and pasties labeled as Halal were found to be contaminated with pig meat too. Perhaps not that much of a concern to most British meat eaters, but to those of the Jewish or Islamic faiths a much more serious issue.

The scandal has lifted the lid on a shady pan European meat trade where shipments of Romanian horse meat passed through several French companies before ending up in Luxembourg where it was processed into ready meals for distribution to the UK, France, Ireland, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands. This whole shady meat trade seems to be in contravention of French food traceability laws that were introduced as a response to the BSE crisis of the 1990s.If the legislation is being ignored on an industrial scale it is actually worse than nothing, since unscrupulous meat traders can make a tidy profit missielling dodgy meat, whilst honest traders are left to carry the financial burden of compliance with (what I believe to be a reasonably sensible) law.

The French food authorities must come under scrutiny for having allowed this to happen, but so too should the UK Food Standards Agency who allowed the misselling of horse meat to go on for many months, only waking up to the scandal after the Irish Food Safety Authority had done all of the legwork.

Mechanically Separated Chicken; another reason to avoid processed foods
One of the things that interests me as a vegetarian is the differing cultural attitudes to the consumption of different meat types. I've always found it confusing that British people could happily consume parts of a pig or cow carcass but would feel revulsion at the idea of eating dog or cow. On the continent attitudes towards the consumption of horse meat are completely different, with horse meat forming a regular part of French and Italian cuisine.

This European demand for horse meat has led to another element to the horse meat scandal. Since the horse meat scandal broke it has come to light that a small percentage of British slaughtered horse meat bound for European markets (an export market of thousands of horse carcasses a year that very few people had heard of before the horse meat scandal broke) has been found to be contaminated with a drug called phenylbutazone (bute), which is banned for human consumption. Here too, the Food Standards Agency has come in for deserved criticism.

In my opinion, probably the most important issue stemming from the horse meat scandal is that it is further evidence of hidden inflation. The practice of replacing the beef in processed foods with much cheaper horse meat, obtained through a dodgy and opaque pan European meat trading network is a clear example of hidden inflation. The inflation is hidden because the customer is still paying the same price for their ready meal beef lasagna, but the inflation still exists because the value and quality of the product has been debased in order to reduce production costs and increase profits.

I've described plenty more examples of how the true scale of inflation is being hidden through "innovative" industry practices and the misleading way that inflation is measured and reported on my article about

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