By Eve Mitchell
Remember that huge scandal about illegal horsemeat in Europe’s food chain? Ever hear about who was responsible? No, me neither.
We good citizens of the UK were recently told that the latest round of testing found no horsemeat in meat products on sale in our shops. We were assured that of 50,876 sample results submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) since February 2013, only 47 were positively horse, and none at all since the June 2013 report (remember the industry does the testing and then sends in the results). We’re also assured that no horse was found in the testing the UK has done as part of the EU-wide screening programme of processed beef products.
The horsemeat isn’t exactly gone, though. The Commission did find 16 new cases of beef contaminated with horsemeat across the EU, a development the Commissioner calls “encouraging”. Well over a year ago French authorities suggested some of the “horse” (that is supposed to be beef) might actually be donkey. Odd then, isn’t it, that the tests only look for, at most, beef, horse, lamb, goat, pork, chicken and turkey? Also, they only tested products that were supposed to be more than 15 percent beef, so the cheaper end of the market could still be a free-for-all. I guess we’ll have to live with all that for now – we’ve got bigger problems.
The UK Government says again, “The full participation [in testing] reflects the Government’s commitment to consumer protection and tackling food fraud.” It’s not the hardest tackle I’ve ever seen. We’re told that in 2013 the Commission “confirmed recurrent non-compliance with legislation applicable to labelling of meat products in most Member States”. That’s big. Really big. That needs a serious response.
Yet what we still haven’t been told is what comes next, or who put the horsemeat in the system or how they will be brought to book. It seems fair that whomever did this should be heavily fined, at least, to help the taxpayer cover the costs of all this testing and investigating. The fine-toothed inquiry into the mess conducted by the UK Parliament turned into a blame game extraordinaire, with supermarkets, food companies, regulatory agencies and Government Ministers all trying to slime out from under the weight of scrutiny. The inquiry Committee said way back in July 2013 it was “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”.
Slow, indeed. In January 2013 the Government had promised a full report of its investigations, then finally in mid-May 2014 we gathered we’d get the report “within the next month”. That didn’t happen, as the Government demanded “more detail” from the report author. A conveniently-timed Cabinet reshuffle in July offered the chance to delay again until some unnamed point in the next Parliament (which next sits in September). Meanwhile, allegations fly that the report’s author has been told to “tone down” his findings. Maybe he gave them a bit too much detail?
Not that things at the EU level are much better. The Commission says that when horse is found marked as beef, “appropriate enforcement measures” include market withdrawal, tracing, relabeling, extra controls for food business operators and “penalties”. The old song had it wrong: the word “prosecutions” actually seems harder to say than “sorry”.
Former Food Minister Owen Paterson said way back in February 2013 the horsemeat scandal was a “fraud and a conspiracy against the public”. Of all the judgments he got wrong, that one does ring true. The real question now is: how high does the conspiracy go?
PS – If you thought you could avoid all this by getting chicken, just hold your horses (sorry, couldn’t resist). As the Guardian and EcoStorm have helpfully showed us, elements of the UK chicken industry that supply supermarkets and fast food outlets are just plain nasty – and that’s before we’re treated to a TTIP/RAFTA race-to-the-bottom on food standards. Rest assured, the good old FSA is on the case: it is “conducting audits and investigations at the plants. These are underway today [25 July] and the findings will be published in due course.” Initial findings are that standards at the two poultry plants involved are “good” and “generally satisfactory”. Bon appétit!