15 February 2013

Consumers confidence crashes, EU-wide food fraud iceberg emerges.

Since the horse meat scandal erupted, a lot of consumers believe they have been lulled into a false sense of security, by the existence of food traceability regulations in Europe.

These were introduced in the wake of the mad cow disease scandal in the 90s'. Now, horse meat sold as beef in minced meat products and ready-made meals has revealed that traceability can only do so much for consumer reassurance. It is the very complexity of the very long supply chain that opens up an opportunity for fraud at every single stage of that chain.

Only through more frequent DNA tests— a technology otherwise used to improve the quality of the meat—would any weaknesses in the entire food supply chain be uncovered over time.  This would contribute to removing the lingering uncertainty that is now plaguing the entire meat sector. The EU-wide testing campaign designed to reassure public opinion may well play its part. But doing further DNA testing on processed beef, and on horse meat test for traces of the anti-inflammatory veterinary drug ‘bute’, opens the doors to finding more unexpected news. 

Previous consumer surveys reveal that consumers are rather picky when it comes to whom they trust to provide safe food. As with previous food scares, sound information does not always come from the authorities. For the health and consumer protection Commissioner, at the moment, this is merely an issue of “false labelling, food quality and traceability” and not a food safety issue. Even though it is not a typical food safety crisis, it raises questions about the security of the food supply chain, and potential safety issues arising from such poor security. As of now, we do not know where the horses used in meat products came from.  The unknowns are a risk in themselves.

In some cases, the horse meat might just have been relabelled as beef. However, horse meat fraudulently infiltrated in the food chain could well emanate from slaughterhouses below EU standards. Microbiologists would know that with meat, food pathogens are potentially everywhere and need to be monitored adequately, as reported previously.  Meanwhile, not knowing which drugs were administered to a horse introduced fraudulently could have more serious consequences for  the health of European citizens.

As the story unfolds further, day by day, wider implications of this ongoing series of scandals have yet to be fully grasped. Consumer confidence may take a while to recover. Read our coverage from Romania, Poland, France, and the UK here.

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