The horsemeat scandal in Europe has galloped off into new realms this week. It’s clear that complete traceability, transparency, integrity and trust will be called for from the NZ meat industry, following the misrepresentation of horsemeat as beef on a massive scale in Europe.
Column inches on the topic are continuing to spew out around the world as the issue has blown out from an initial suspected meat contamination to a full multi-national Europe-wide problem.
Aside from the cultural issue of eating horsemeat, repugnant to the British and Irish but accepted in other parts of Europe, the main issue now is misrepresentation: what was actually included in the items bought by consumers was not what it said on the labels.
That is ‘”completely unacceptable” for the UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who has been quoted as saying “It’s a straight case of fraud.” The British Food Safety Authority is investigating and is demanding a raft of tests on a wide range of products from all processors and retailers. The matter has now gone higher with European food safety ministers who have met in Brussels this week and the involvement of the European Food Safety Authority.
Some think that the EU itself is at fault by introducing legislation last year banning the use at late notice of economical de-sinewed meat (DSM) in the products. Supermarkets denying food manufacturing suppliers the opportunity to raise the prices to compensate for increased manufacturing costs led to suppliers urgently seeking alternative more cost-effective fillers.
However, the EU’s stringent rules on traceability – which have also been applied to third country suppliers like New Zealand – have enabled it to rapidly track and identify the routes the meat has taken and the source. As the issue is explored, the net has widened out from Ireland and the UK to more markets – France, Sweden, Spain and Russia among them – and moves are being made to also probe into pork and poultry products. It’s also brought into focus the fractured and sometimes opportunistic meat trading system in Europe, with the paper trail seeing one trader buying from the plant and selling on to another, and another (and possibly another), before it ends up actually being delivered to the food manufacturer. Opportunities for misrepresentation are many.
Dragged into mire
Findus, French food manufacturer Comigel, and its meat processor Spanghero, were dragged into the mire this week. The French government discovered that horsemeat produced legitimately at a Romanian plant went through several hands in Cyprus, the Netherlands and France before being sold as ‘beef’ to Comigel and Findus. Raids on two plants in the UK caught another Welsh operation, Farmbox Meats, blatantly misrepresenting the horsemeat it was buying from a Yorkshire plant, Peter Boddy’s, and selling it in kebabs, burgers, pasta sauces and other items as ‘beef’. Three men have been arrested in connection with those raids.
There were concerns too in the UK that horsemeat might be contaminated with ‘bute’ – phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory veterinary drug, which has been linked to side effects in humans, but has been said by the UK’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies to have a “limited public health risk.”
The trawl also discovered pork being included in beef products destined for halal customers, which is unacceptable for them on religious grounds.
They do know the difference, now
It could be argued that the traders at the heart of the issue showed breath-taking complacency and a “they’ll-never-know-the-difference” arrogance. Maybe the consumers didn’t at the time, but modern testing methods did – and will in the future. As one paper put it, it’s a bonanza for the DNA and other testing laboratories, which are now under immense pressure to get the ‘overwhelming’ volume of work done.
Following the EU meeting, a three month programme of random testing of processed beef products EU-wide was announced, beginning on 1 March with the first results to be published on 15 April. European Commission recommendations on country-of-origin labelling are also likely to be published.
In addition, as the issue is impacting on purchasing habits, some retailers are taking the matters, literally, into their own hands. The UK’s Waitrose supermarket chain announced this week that it is to build its own frozen meat products plant at Dovecote Park in Yorkshire, with all of the meat being sourced from a trusted group of British farmers – none of it being sourced on the open market.
Waitrose managing director Mark Price commented: “Our customers rightly expect the highest standards of product quality and integrity from us and we won’t let anything stand in the way of our delivering this.”
On the British high street, the Q Guild of Butchers have noted a spike in sales for high street butcher’s shops in recent weeks, with some consumers shifting allegiance to trusted suppliers.
Focus must shift to protecting product integrity
Eventually – and the sooner the better – the focus must switch to thinking about how the integrity of foodstuffs can be truly protected, says Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast. “The last great shake-up of meat supplies came about 20 years ago due to BSE. A generation later, and in the wake of some of the impacts of food globalisation starting to emerge, the time to rethink things has surely arrived.”
There will be changes ahead for the European system, which is now under heavy and ‘relentless’ scrutiny. More stringent regular testing of products will be on the wish-list, along with country-of-origin labelling for processed products and, possibly, some regulation of meat traders.
New Zealand needs to show transparency and integrity
The challenge for the New Zealand meat industry will be to show transparency and integrity. Maintain and build the trust that the systems we have in place, ironically – and fortuitously as it turns out – forced on us by our customers overseas, work.
It has provided an acid test for the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme which requires tagging of all cattle (and deer), according to Jeanette Maxwell, Federated Farmers Meat & Fibre chairperson.
“While our beef exports to the European Union are small, at over 12,000 tonnes, it is a lucrative market worth $149 million in 2011/2012. This uncertain climate regarding European beef must surely make our traceable beef stand out; especially at the premium end.”
However, New Zealand’s beef exports to the EU are governed by quotas. Specifically, these allow only 1,300 tonnes (product weight) of high quality beef to be exported to the region, attracting a 20 percent duty. New Zealand, with other countries like Australia, can also compete to supply beef under the most favoured nation global quota of 116,703 tonnes in total. This also attracts a 20 percent ad valorem duty.
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