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Blog Posts: Europe

June 27th, 2014

On Fracked Gas, Same Rhetoric—Different Century

By Geert Decock

Are you familiar with the British comedian Rowan Atkinson? Does Mr. Bean maybe ring a bell? Then maybe you know the sketch comedy piece where Atkinson plays a rather deluded Member of Parliament who makes a nonsensical speech, high on rhetoric, low on substance. I had to think back to Atkinson’s “Sir Marcus Browning MP”, when reading the NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s remarks last week that Russia is behind the growing anti-fracking movement in Europe, fomenting opposition to shale gas and even funding anti-fracking groups. Sir Marcus Browning finishes his speech (spoiler alert!) by insisting he doesn’t want to end up like “the blind man, in the dark room, looking for a black cat… that isn’t there”. By making his comments about Russian support for the European anti-fracking movement, Rasmussen looks exactly like “the blind man, in the dark room, looking for a black cat … that isn’t there”.

These accusations of Russia’s influence in the anti-fracking movement have repeatedly been made. And until today, without a shred of evidence. Read the full article…

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June 12th, 2014

GM Crops in the EU – Game On

By Eve Mitchell

Say No to GM Feed in EuropeAs widely predicted, the European Council agreed this morning to the compromise proposal on so-called national “opt outs” for GM crops. What happens next will be interesting indeed.

Luxembourg and Belgium abstained from the vote. Every other EU Member State supported the deal, but that doesn’t give a full picture of the situation by any means.

Around half of the Member States said outright they would ban GM crops or alluded that they would. Others noted the difficulties yet to be faced in agreeing coexistence rules needed to protect non-GM agriculture from GM contamination, including across international boundaries in our relatively small countries. None dismissed the delicacy of the next stage – securing the agreement with the EU Parliament. One speaker called the emerging agreement “historic,” and given the issue was first broached in 2009, I suppose that’s true to a point. More than one country called for the revision of the ten-year-old regulations of GMOs, and others the need to update and revise how Europe conducts its risk assessments of GMOs (as unanimously called for by this same Council way back in 2008 – pdf). That’s a big can of worms indeed. Several speakers reminded the Council of the strong public opposition to GM food and crops back home. At the end of the meeting, Italy said that the agreement “demonstrates the unity of Europe”.

I heard a lot of things during this meeting, but unanimity wasn’t one of them.

So on we go to that next stage, where a brand new Parliament will have to take on a highly controversial issue that touches on food production and safety, public health, international trade, environmental protection, national sovereignty, democratic accountability and corporate control of agriculture all in one go. Good luck to them. Good luck to us. We will be relying on the countries who signalled disquiet with any number of issues in this deal (while agreeing to it anyway, in the spirit of cooperation of course), to insist those issues are clearly addressed and real answers provided. The pressure being applied will make those lines hard to hold.

If the Parliament and Council can someday wrestle an actual agreement out of all that, we’ll then have to see if the biotech industry plays ball and permits any bans to stand. If anything like half of EU countries ban GM crops in all or parts of their territories it will give the industry a pretty big headache of multilingual regulations to adhere to across what is supposed to be a Single Market. That nagging issue of coexistence will be there, as well as liability for any damage done by their products, particularly if that damage occurs across international borders into areas banning the crops in the first place. Since the chief GM lobby group EuropaBio has already put out a tetchy statement of disappointment saying, “This deal shows the lack of willingness of the EU institutions and Member States to correctly implement the current regulatory framework for GMO approvals they had decided upon themselves,” it isn’t at all clear the rules of the game will be agreed by all the players. Then again the industry has the WTO red card in its back pocket they can use to challenge any ban or start a trade war. Mere citizens have no such backstop.

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June 4th, 2014

GM Crops for Europe – The Deal Nobody Wants

By Eve Mitchell

Say No to GM Feed in EuropeFor those of you who don’t spend hours every day keeping up with the details of EU agriculture politics, I’ll start simple: Last week Europe took a big step toward GM crops. If this bothers you, you need to tell your elected representatives, and you need to do it now.

Here’s the latest: On 28 May, a preparatory meeting agreed that on 12 June the Council will vote on a proposal for so-called “opt outs” on GM crops. There’s every indication the Council will vote in favour.

This is where it gets a little more confusing. Giving countries the right to ban GM crops, as the proposal is often described, sounds like a good thing. It’s not that easy.

The proposal (a leaked version of which is available at the bottom of the page here) is motivated by the desire in some quarters to make it easier for the EU to authorise GM crops and thereby easier to grow them. In our Single Market such an authorisation applies to all 28 Member States.

Countries wishing to “opt out” of approved GM crops step into a complex and legally uncertain process under this proposal. The first (and believe it or not most straight-forward) step is that the country can ask the Commission to ask the GM company’s permission for the country to opt out of the crop in question. This is a shocking assault on democratic decision making, underpinned by a clear conflict of interest for the biotech industry, which one expects will prefer to take its chances that some farmers will go ahead and grow the stuff anyhow, which in the Single Market would be perfectly legal.

If the company declines this request to ban its own products, the next two potential ways for a country to “opt out” of a GM crop are heavily qualified, dripping with phrases like:

  • “There should be the possibility for that Member State to adopt reasoned measures restricting or prohibiting the cultivation of that GMO once authorised” (that doesn’t feel very robust. What does “reasoned” mean?)
  • “On the basis of grounds distinct from those assessed according to the harmonized set of Union rules” (so discrepancies in scientific understanding on safety aren’t allowed.)
  • “When new and objective circumstances justify an adjustment” (wonderfully vague – whose objectivity counts here? Who judges what is justified?)

It is all dreadfully unclear legally, and all options require the acquiescence of the company that has refused to permit the country from opting out in the first place. From what we can see from the leaked documents, any attempt by a country to ban an approved GM crop could wind up in court, and quite possibly a trade war via the WTO and/or other international trade agreements for the whole of the EU – a potent weapon indeed.

Last time pro-GM EU countries tried this in 2012, the Germans told the Council they objected to the breach of the Single Market, and the UK objected to both the breach of the Single Market and the lack of legal clarity, saying we “need to make the system work, not worse.” The UK, “While it is possible to draft text that looks legally sound it is difficult to envisage how a ban could be substantiated and evidenced in practice in a way that is strong enough to withstand a WTO challenge.”

How times have changed.

Complex internal wrangles following a change of Government have pushed Germany to support the proposal. Officially the UK now says, “This proposal should help unblock the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops for cultivation.” The new positions of these big hitters suggest the proposal will get the votes it needs to achieve a qualified majority and pass.

Not that the biotech industry is happy with this proposal either. André Goig, Chair of EuropaBio, said, “To renationalise a common policy, based on non-objective grounds, is a negative precedent and contrary to the spirit of the single market.

In a nutshell the political situation is:

So who is this deal for?

The sad irony of this situation is that Europe’s prudent precaution about GM crops appears to be threatened just as our friends in the U.S. are realising they want off the GM treadmill. They are voting for the kind of labels we already have here in the EU, and given everything we know about informed markets rejecting GM foods, those labels could really help tip the balance and ensure only those who actually choose to eat it find it on their plates. The resulting constriction of the market could help knock the GM industry down a peg or two, which would help all of us, including our colleagues in Africa who are being lined up as the next market to crack. Without the profits from unlabelled U.S. sales, the biotech companies might find it a bit harder to roll out their plans.

We’re entering dangerous waters. Whether you live in the U.S. or the EU tell your elected representatives you don’t want GM crops. Remember: If we refuse to put GM food in our kitchens (including the meat, milk and eggs from animals reared on GM feed), supermarkets won’t stock it. If supermarkets won’t stock it, farmers will think twice before planting it. Those of us who follow the details will keep pushing for the meaningful labels most of us want, but your help is indispensable.

May 7th, 2014

What’s Beyond GMO Contamination?

By David Sánchez

Read “Organic Farmers Pay the Price for Contamination” in English or Spanish.

Felix is an organic farmer in Spain, the country that hosts 90 percent of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe. He grows grains, alfalfa and vegetables. His organic maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and therefore he lost the organic certification for his 7.7 hectare farm. He lost €14,756 (US$20,585) as a result of the preventive measures he took to avoid contamination in addition to the direct loss of being forced to sell his harvest in the conventional markets. According to the Spanish law, he has no one to blame, so cannot claim for damages. 

Tom is an organic farmer in the U.S., a country where 90 percent of soy and 93 percent of maize area is planted with GM varieties. He grows maize and is forced to take many measures to prevent contamination: planting buffer strips, delaying planting or performing extra tests, with median annual costs up to US$8,000 (€5,735). One year his maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and the buyer rejected his load, with a median loss in that season of US$4,500 (€3,226). He has no one to blame for the damage either.

The first story was reported by Greenpeace a few years ago. It just shows the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of GM cultivation in Spain. The second could be the story of any of the organic farmers surveyed by Food & Water Watch and OFARM earlier this year, just released in Europe in (available in English and in Spanish).

The stories of organic and GM-free farmers in both countries are extremely similar. They’ve been forced to abandon organic cultivation of crops where there is a GM variety, incur additional labour costs and economic damages, faced financial insecurity and experienced strained relations between neighbours—without any legal protections. Clearly, what the U.S. Government, the European Commission and the industry call “coexistence” simply mean imposing GM crops. 

Nevertheless, there is one important difference: the EU only allows the cultivation of one GM maize variety so far. But the reality of European small-scale agriculture shows that the situations in those countries that allow GM cultivation (Spain, Portugal or the Czech Republic) are already too serious to be ignored. And this is something the European Commission should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to approve a new GM crop, a maize engineered by Pioneer to kill insects and resist herbicides.

We have mounting scientific evidence on the right way to create a food system to achieve sustainability and social justice goals. And the European Commission will have to decide whom do they want to stand for. Will they stand for Felix and the organic farmers, a growing sector that creates employment and puts new energies in rural areas? Or will they stand for Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta, who are lobbying hard to get their GM crops approved in Europe? The answer will be coming soon.

Tell the European Food Safety Authority: If it’s dangerous you want less NOT more!

March 21st, 2014

How to Disappoint 1.9 Million Citizens in a Few Minutes

By David Sánchez

For one moment, imagine that you are the Vice President of the European Commission. Citizens all around Europe have collected signatures demanding you to recognize the Human Right to Water and Sanitation in the European Union. This first ever European Citizen’s Initiative to be successful gained support from 1.9 million people. You had three months to discuss with your colleagues what to do about it. You start the press conference, smile to the cameras and speak for a few minutes. You announce that you say yes to the petition but you are aware that you are offering nothing. Finally, you leave the room.

Now imagine that the multinational company that manages water in your city cut off your water supply because you can’t afford to pay the bills. Or imagine that your municipal water supply is about to be privatized. Or maybe you were even involved in the signature collection and invested a lot of your time and efforts on it.

How would you feel in each situation? March 22nd is World Water Day, a good moment to reflect about the huge gap created this week between the announcement of the European Commission and the expectancies of 1.9 million European citizens on the right to water.

But, what is a European Citizen’s Initiative?

The European Citizen’s Initiative is a new democratic tool that tries to allow EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies by calling on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal. You “just” need to collect one million signatures coming from at least 7 member states, following a really complicated set of rules and procedures.

And the Right to Water Initiative did it. Nearly 1.9 million signatures were collected with three basic demands: the legal requirement by EU institutions and Member States to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation, a commitment that water supply and management will not be privatized and a commitment to increase EU efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. These were three clear demands that had nearly no echo in the Commission’s answer.

The European Commission acknowledged the importance of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation and confirmed water as a public good. Which is good, but just words. They didn’t propose any legislation to recognize this right, just a compilation of already ongoing actions plus the announcement of a public consultation on the drinking water directive whose outcomes will not be binding. On the positive side, they committed to promote universal access to water and sanitation in its development policies, including the promotion of public-public partnerships. And that’s a step in the right direction.

But citizens had asked to exclude water and sanitation from what they call “internal market rules,” that is, privatization and liberalization. And the Commission did nothing. Water was excluded temporally, due to strong public opposition, from the last internal market legislation. But the Commission didn’t explicitly exclude these services from the ongoing trade negotiations, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP or TAFTA) with the U.S. or the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada.

The European Water Movement, of which Food & Water Europe is part, stated it quite clearly: this decision implies a bad precedent for this new mechanism of public participation.

Water privatization is still a very concrete menace in many European countries, with the European Commission itself one of the main drivers. As part of the Troika (the tripartite committee composed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), they are pushing for water privatization in Greece and Portugal, while evidence from public auditing bodies confirms that privatization is detrimental both for local authorities and ordinary citizens. And the reality on the ground shows that when families can’t afford to pay their bills, they are being deprived of access to water by private companies, as happened recently in Jerez, Spain.

Citizens are mobilizing across Europe. Millions of Italians voted against water privatization and local referendums took place in major cities like Madrid and Berlin. Right now citizens of Alcazar de San Juan, Spain, are voting on a popular referendum about the privatization of their water supply. Thessaloniki, in Greece, will vote on May 18. And other cities, like Puerto de Santa Maria, also in Spain, are now mobilized for the same reasons.

Water should be a commons, not a commodity. We must close the gap between citizen’s expectations and EU decisions. We need to keep reminding our politicians of the importance of the right to water before the elections for the European Parliament. And we need to keep it in mind also in the World Water Day.

March 12th, 2014

Why I Came to Work for Food & Water Europe

 

Welcome David!

There is a battle brewing over who owns water. Stay informed about what Food & Water Europe is doing to keep our water safe, affordable and sustainable.

By David Sánchez

Hi there! My name is David Sánchez and I am the new campaign officer at Food & Water Europe here in Brussels. I have already been around for one month, so I guess it is time for me to introduce myself.

My main task will be to work, together with local grassroots movements, for safe, accessible, sustainable public water in the EU. I will also be looking at sustainable food and one of the main threats we are facing, the negotiations for a new EU-US free trade agreement (known as TTIP or TAFTA).

And what is a Spanish guy like me doing in Brussels, “the heart of the beast”? That’s what I wonder when I cycle under the rain (that is, quite often) on my way to the office. I have been interested in nature since I was a kid, so I decided to study environmental sciences at Madrid University. That was at the time when the debate around GMOs was in turmoil, and names like Monsanto where all over the place. Companies patenting life, and releasing risky genetically modified organisms in the environment and our food really led me to environmental activism. After that, I got a Masters degree in Ecology in a Portuguese university, researching the impacts of pollutants like glyphosate (Monsanto again!) on freshwater ecosystems, and then I spent some years working on environmental education.

Then I found myself with the amazing opportunity to coordinate national food and farming campaigns at an environmental NGO. I spent several years campaigning against agrofuels, factory farming and GMOs in Spain, the only country in the EU that grows them on a large scale, working side by side with farmers and consumers against corporate power and for food sovereignty.

Suddenly one day you wake up and, without even noticing it, you are cycling under the rain in Brussels, and you can feel all around you the power and the influence of the army of lobbyist working for transnational companies. Under many different names, you can watch Monsanto, Syngenta, Suez or Veolia maneuvering to increase their profits, while taking away public control over our food and water systems.

One of the main reasons I love Food & Water Europe is because we try to link the grassroots with the EU level. When you are campaigning on the ground, pushing to declare your town as a GM-free area or trying to stop the privatization of your municipal water supply, it is not that easy to connect your struggle with those lobbyists that meet in Brussels. But most of the environmental and consumer protection legislation in Europe is nowadays decided or promoted here.

People fighting in the streets of Spain, Greece or France against water privatization must have their voice heard in Brussels. And shaping EU legislation will help developing the public, democratic and participatory models we want to build.

But don’t leave us alone here under the rain! We need you to connect the dots between the daily local fights and the heart of the beast. I am sure that together we can push for a change in the way water and food are managed in Europe (and globally).

You can contact me at dsanchez(at)fweurope(dot)org. Sign up to stay informed about the work of Food & Water Europe.

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March 10th, 2014

Stop the U.S. Approval of “Agent Orange” Crops

Tell the USDA you care about your food.

What the U.S. does matters to our food. Protect what we eat from Agent Orange.

URGENT: March 11 Deadline for Comments: This is our last chance to stop the U.S. approval of “Agent Orange” crops. Act now.

You know that nasty chemical we heard about from the Vietnam War — Agent Orange? The one that caused so many health problems and birth defects?

If Dow has its way, one of the harsh chemicals in Agent Orange will be sprayed in massive amounts all over the U.S. and on crops bound for Europe.

Dow, a chemical and biotech competitor to Monsanto, has genetically engineered corn and soybeans so that the plants can withstand the application of the chemical 2,4-D, half of the notorious Agent Orange chemical cocktail.

Unfortunately, this nasty chemical is already being used in industrial agriculture, despite its proven detriment to health and the environment. Studies show that 2,4-D messes with your hormones, damages your nervous system, lowers your immunity to illnesses and causes reproductive problems. If these GMO corn and soy crops are approved, more and more agriculture operations in the U.S. will use 2,4-D. This will cause up to a 25-fold increase in the amount sprayed on fields, increasing our exposure and creating more pollution that harms people and animals.

Read the full article…

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February 14th, 2014

Place Your Bets Now: GM vs Democracy in the EU

By Eve Mitchell

“What a hot potato.”

unlabeled GE sweet corn coming to a store near you?EU Health and Consumer Commissioner Borg’s understatement opened his presentation of the cultivation application for GM Pioneer1507 maize to the European Council on Tuesday. Having been thumped to and fro like a flat football since before Christmas, we were expecting a vote on the application to answer the question once and for all. We didn’t get it.

Instead we got another round of “indicative votes” from EU Member States, and the outcome was grim. The Greeks currently hold the rotating Presidency of the Council, and being firmly anti-GM they are presumably keen not to be painted into any procedural corners that would see a new GM crop authorised on their watch. So Member States were asked to say what they would do if there was a vote. Only 5 out of 28 countries said they would vote in favour of the crop. Given the clear vote in the European Parliament on 16 January instructing the Council to reject the application, one would have thought that was that. It isn’t. Not by a long shot.

The Council operates under a qualified majority system, with each country casting a weighted number of votes – UK and France have 29 votes, Sweden 10, Malta 3, and so on. Since the UK voted in favour of the GM crop (much to the dismay of British people and against the clear opposition to GM in the Scottish and Welsh Governments), and since big-hitter Germany abstained, the indicative votes did not demonstrate a sufficient qualified majority either way. The law says that if an actual vote was cast and produced that result, the Commission would be bound to take a decision on the file. (The Commission’s last foray into this territory was with the highly controversial Amflora potato; its authorisation was recently annulled by the second highest court in the EU for failing to abide by the law. One suspects the Commission is on tenterhooks here, but it also seems prepared to press the GM point.)

Thankfully the Greeks seem reluctant to ask for such a vote.

Still with me?

A complex legal discussion in the Council chamber tried to find a way through the marsh. Many member states had urged the Commission to withdraw the application altogether to avoid undermining the credibility of the European project in the run-up to the May elections, saying they did not see how approval by politically-appointed Commissioners could be explained to the electorate after rejection by the Parliament and the clear majority of EU countries. The Greens say they will call for the resignation of the Commission with a formal motion of censure if it approves the file. A number of member states told the Council it would help an awful lot if countries would stand up for their convictions and vote “no” rather than abstaining, but clearly four couldn’t manage it. So here we are, in the marsh, waiting to see who blinks first.

Governing is a complex business, especially among 28 countries, and democracy is a hard-won and precious thing. Often the test of governing structures is how well they cope with contentious issues. Many commentators are calling this situation an example of the “absurd” nature of EU GM regulation. We need to be a bit careful here: everyone signed up to the rules of the game a long time ago, so we can’t say we didn’t know what would happen in such circumstances. It could also be a lot worse – this process means we still only grow one GM crop here. Even so this mess sure does make a citizen scratch her head in wonderment.

One way to sort this out is what I call “proper identification of the bad guy”. We need to remember that the real problem here is corporate-driven GM food, not democratic bureaucracy. When it comes to GM pollen contamination in honey, the EU (lead by a UK MEP) performs all sorts of contortions to hide it from consumers rather than ban the crop causing the problem. When it comes to deciding on new GM crops, following the law means ignoring the wishes of both the Parliament and the majority of EU member countries – so why not just ban GM crops if they really threaten the fabric of European togetherness as claimed?

Are crops no one wants to eat really worth it, particularly when the annual industry mouthpiece “assessment” of global GM uptake demonstrates a “plateau” in GM cultivation in major GM markets? It’s not even clear if Pioneer Hi-Bred will ever sell 1507 in the EU – while suing the Commission for delay in processing the 1507 maize application Pioneer Hi-Bred said, “Once cultivation approval is granted, DuPont Pioneer will evaluate the situation and the available options, and will take a strategic decision on the marketing of the product based on these considerations.” Honestly.

Many pro-GM politicians say we need to keep politics out of the GM discussion and “stick to the science” – a laughable position if you read any of the above. An adamant proponent of this position is UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson. 

So where is the Right Honourable Secretary of State while this is breaking loose?  Consulting with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to agree a democratic position for the UK on GM cultivation? Helping badgers in the flooded West Country learn to swim? No. In the run-up to the vote Paterson gave a pro-GM speech at a conference hosted by Big Biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio. (True story: the Countess of Mar felt compelled to ask a formal Parliamentary Question to clarify if Paterson was to “represent the policy of the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government, the policy of the United Kingdom Government, or his personal views” during the EuropaBio event – answer: UK. In that speech Patterson said of Pioneer1507 maize, “The UK has no current interest in planting this particular crop.” Yet the UK still voted in favour of it, mind you.). Soon the Secretary of State is off to Addis Ababa* to help the EU’s colourful Chief Scientist Anne Glover, another Brit, sell GM crops to Africans. No politics there.

GM vs Democracy? The wheel is spinning. I know where my money is.

* Update, February 17, 2014 : The trip was cancelled amid growing publicity after this piece was published.

February 9th, 2014

Food & Water Europe: A New Year

We’re hitting the ground running in 2014 and need you to be part of this year’s successes in our work to protect Europe’s food and water.
Sign up today.

By Eve Mitchell

It’s February? Already? Let’s get this going!

After a very busy 2013, 2014 sure started with a roar for Food & Water Europe!

While we are full on for the new year, we want to say “Thank you!” for your part in our successes food, water and fracking successes in 2013, including:
Read the full article…

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January 22nd, 2014

Happy Birthday, Horsemeat Scandal

By Eve Mitchell

It’s been a year since we were first told the beef we buy may actually be horsemeat, but we still don’t really know what happened, how far it spread, who is responsible, or how they will be called to account for themselves.

We’ve seen a smattering of arrests, notably the September 2013 arrests of eight managers of the French company Spanghero on charges of aggravated fraud and mislabelling of food products. French authorities say they “knowingly sold” 750 tonnes of horsemeat mislabelled as beef. Around two-thirds of this went to French firm Comigel’s Luxembourg subsidiary Tavola and found its way into some 4.5 million products that were then sold again to 28 companies operating in 13 European countries. This may be the source of the tainted Findus “beef” lasagne (100% horsemeat) found on UK supermarket shelves.

Sound complicated? It is, but if you’re going to buy heavily processed foods you need to know this stuff – unless you’re happy to just pinch your nose and swallow.

Justice is elusive. Accused of netting some €500,000 over six months of fraud (£425,000 or US$681,000), Spanghero had been stripped of its operating license in February 2013. It then closed in June, changed managers, sacked nearly 60% of its workforce, renamed itself La Lauragaise, refinanced and was trading again by the end of July – protesting its “innocence” all the way. Then came the arrests in September. The company’s new tagline “Saveurs des terroirs” (“The flavours of the land”, with heavy overtones of traditional cultural quality) feels like a bad joke.

Flagship arrests, while welcome, are not enough. Supermarkets sold us this stuff but are not feeling the heat. The UK Parliamentary inquiry into the affair quizzed supermarket bosses, pointing out to Tesco that it is “notorious” for rejecting misshapen apples but somehow managed to miss the fact that products labelled beef were actually up to 29% horse. The Tesco representative attempted to blame consumers, saying the company does what they want, but this didn’t wash with the committee, which retorted, “You obviously don’t [do what your customers want] on horse.”

The inquiry pressed that if beef is trading at a premium to horse, and with “unscrupulous people out there, as obviously there are,” surely supermarkets should watch cheaper products more closely. Tesco said each of its suppliers is scrutinised with the same ”rigour” (Tesco does one DNA test per year at each meat production site). Horsemeat was still being found in Tesco products as late as June, but as the Food Standards Agency only reports results over 1%, for all we know horsemeat is still masquerading as beef all over the place. At this stage it isn’t in anybody’s interest to say differently, and consumers have to take what they can get.

Supermarkets sell UK shoppers 80% of our food, so when they fail us, it is a big deal. Tesco pleads innocence, saying its supplier used unapproved suppliers further down the chain. The Committee’s July 2013 report concluding its inquiry said while some retailers may have been misled, the big ones “need to ‘up their game’”, and the costs should rest on companies, not consumers. The inquiry concluded, “Retailers and meat processors should have been more vigilant against the risk of deliberate adulteration,” instead of taking everything “on trust”. The Committee continued, “We are dismayed at the slow pace of investigations and would like assurance that prosecutions will be mounted where there is evidence of fraud or other illegal activity.” That was in July 2013. 

So what has the UK Government done? Testifying before the inquiry in January 2013 Minister for Agriculture and Food David Heath MP announced a wide-ranging review of the crisis, but the report was kicked into the long grass and is not due before an unnamed point in 2014, with actual action who knows when after that. Meanwhile the inquiry heard the Government is proposing to decriminalise food labelling violations amid a declining number of public analysts and labs able to carry out food testing and budget cuts to the local authorities responsible for food testing.

UK Secretary of State for Food and Farming Owen Paterson said of the horsemeat scandal: “I think we came out of it very strongly.” On addressing the scandal he said, “Firstly we are bound by the rules of the European market,” although this is a notable departure from his feelings in other areas (Paterson calls Europe’s rules on GM food “medieval” and compares them to “witchcraft”). The annual review of his department showed that fewer than a third of his staff have confidence in managerial decision making and fewer than a quarter think their management have a clear vision of the future. They are not alone.

Some say all this is proof that “Big Retail has government in an armlock”. It sure feels like they have shoppers under the other arm.

On 14 January 2014 the European Parliament passed a motion on food fraud that “deplores” that it has never been an EU enforcement priority and reiterates that “the retail sector has a special responsibility to guarantee the integrity of food products”. With supermarkets claiming innocence and the UK Government playing “hurry up and wait,” maybe the EU can force some action on our behalf.

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