Horsemeat scandal in UK and Europe continues to threaten confidence in food chain

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There is a massive horsemeat scandal in the UK and Ireland. It started in January when authorities in the UK and Ireland discovered traces of horsemeat in some cheaper hamburger meat sold in supermarkets.

Further investigation revealed that it was also in frozen packaged beef lasagna and spaghetti bolognese as well as meatballs. It is also suspected that food containing horsemeat has been served in school lunches and some hospitals and institutions.

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Yes, they do eat horsemeat in many countries, such as France and Italy. But it is clearly labelled as such, not just mixed in with the beef. However the issue is more complex and touches on a number of areas.

In the past beef in the UK was never tested for horsemeat, because it was never a problem. People love horses here; there is almost a national revulsion to the thought of eating them. There are conflicting reports as to whether the Food Standards Agency began its investigation as random surveillance or after having been tipped off. But it has now been discovered that some "beef" in frozen beef lasagne and spaghetti bolognese was up to 100% horse.

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Several slaughterhouses in the UK have been raided and people arrested. There is a major food processor in France which has been one of the main sources and providers of the horsemeat to the British. Now there is a fear that the firms involved in the trade could be spread across Europe, because it is so difficult to trace the supply chain. And those firms may not be the most upright and desirable places...

Why has it happened?

The cost of food has risen but people's incomes have not. The supermarkets and the public want cheap food; two for one bargains at the supermarket abound. But there is a dangerous cost to cheap food: the loss of quality and confidence and control over what you are buying. That is what we are seeing happen in the UK.

According to the Guardian:

Supermarket buyers and big brands have been driving down prices, seeking special offers on meat products as consumers cut back on their spending in the face of recession. The squeeze on prices has come at a time when manufacturers' costs have been soaring. Beef prices have been at record highs as has the price of grain needed to feed cattle. The cost of energy, heavily used in industrial processing and to fuel centralised distribution chains, has also soared. There has been a mistmatch between the cost of real beef and what companies are prepared to pay.

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Is there a health threat?

There is a fear that traces of a chemical known as Bute, may be in the meat. It is a veterinary painkiller and not meant for human consumption. To date it has been found in 29 out of 2,501 tests.

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Who is the culprit?

According to a food columnist:

Supermarkets have to start paying British farmers more so they can invest in homegrown agriculture, so, in turn, our self-sufficiency will improve markedly. The supermarkets will have to take smaller profits, a fact of life investors will have to get used to. And yes, consumers will have to accept a further increase in the price of food, perhaps from the current 10% of income to 13% or 14%. Otherwise, we will be left at the mercy of the international producers who have no incentive to trade with us and who can charge what they like. Many food staples could double or triple in price.

What is the answer?

There are several obvious responses.

As a result of this scandal, food prices are going to have to go up. Supermarkets have been trying to sell their food more cheaply because of the poor economy but they can't guarantee the quality.

Don't eat meat is another, and there have been many articles about people finally getting off the meat addiction as a result of this scandal. Others are saying buy only fresh meat from a reliable butcher whom you trust or farmers' markets. In fact, many butchers have posted signs advertising their fresh meat.

But the real victims are the people on low incomes who have to buy cheap food and have to shop at cheap supermarkets. People will somehow have to be encouraged to eat healthily on a budget, rather than relying on cheap processed ready made products.

As Michael Pollan pointed out ages ago:

A dollar will buy 1200 calories of cookies or chips but only 250 calories of carrots. If you don't have a lot of money, the most rational thing to do is buy junk food to get the most calories for your buck.

Tags: Food Safety | Food Security | Ireland | United Kingdom