Horsemeat: the trojan in the room

For many, the horsemeat scandal took away the option to feel freedom in their food choices, where choice was slim to begin with.

Behind its vinyl strip doors, parts of the meat industry had a dark secret. It was the headline this time last year, of horsemeat, lasagnes, frozen foods, and Findus – flashing before our eyes like a drunken montage of neon signs and swirling burger iconography. Or at least that must have been how it looked to the Food Standards Agency, which had just been landed with an extreme and painstaking task.

Since ‘adulteration’ made it into food chain vernacular in January 2013, beef has been repositioned under the microscope for clues as to where the contamination came from. Twelve months later, horsemeat is still making the news, albeit in a slightly quieter fashion. Like all milestones, these are times to reflect on lessons learned, and to see how far we’ve come. Research has been released, surveys tallied up and standards reports written. The new headline: the problem is far from being solved.

Too little, too late

If Europe had resolved to keep the horsey headlines at bay in 2014, it’s already failed. Dutch authorities this month recalled 11,000kg of mislabelled French horsemeat, illegally sold from the pharmaceuticals and sports industries. But it was too little too late, with the meat thought to have already been consumed. It’s as though nothing has changed – an opinion shared by 36% of people in a recent Populus survey. The survey of over 2,000 people in Britain found 53% were still suspicious of discounted foods, while 52% said they were suspicious of the less well-known brands. The solutions that got the respondents going included pledges to ensure credibility, including tracing the supply chain in its entirety or for all meat sold in store to be of UK origin and from independently certified sustainable sources.

Quite amazingly, no prosecutions have yet been made, and with a recent Which? report revealing food testing standards in local authorities are falling below acceptable standards, criminality could be sustained and go undetected.

Short-term solutions

One short-term solution offered up by chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Anne McIntosh, was for consumers to shop locally, and for retailers to champion smaller supply chains. In a summing up on the anniversary, she cited Professor Chris Elliot, author of the latest review into the integrity of the food chain supply: “By buying local we can more likely trace all sources of our food. Professor Elliott highlighted in particular the transportation of meat as being of highest risk and the storage of meat slabs. There is also a need for more food analysts to reduce the risk,” said McIntosh.

Except, what stops people buying locally? There are factors of cost, of ease and simplicity to consider against the masses who gravitate towards one big weekly supermarket shop. Provenance is unfortunately still a term often deemed usable only by those who can afford to care. Exploring your local area for markets, butchers, fishmongers and grocers is a luxury few can afford these days. The scandal’s effects shouldn’t have to result in consumers buying unaffordable food to avoid something that came at the cost of unattainable thrift. It shouldn’t dictate shopping decisions based on a justified paranoia thanks to this as-yet not prosecuted criminality. It’s up to the industry in whom we supposedly put our trust in to deliver on these basic expectations. Then we can truly make a choice as to how, where and what we eat.

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