During horsegate six years ago, cheap horsemeat ended up in ready-made meals sold as ‘pure beef’ across Europe. Four defendants – two former managers of the French company for processed meat Spanghero and two meat traders from the Netherlands – now face jail and heavy fines for selling horsemeat as beef.
However, despite a spate of reforms since then, designed to prevent such food frauds recurring, experts are still questioning their effectiveness.
Speaking to GlobalMeatNews, European Livestock and Meat Trades Union (UECBV) secretary general Jean Luc Mériaux said that while the affair “was not a food safety issue but rather a fraudulent labelling one and an isolated case, it damaged consumers’ trust in the food chain [and] in the competency of authorities”. Sales of frozen meat-based ready-meals dropped as a result, he noted, with a spokesperson for European consumer association BEUC (Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs) noting that the scandal sparked the closure of several meat production lines.
Moreover, it has made consumers warier, as well as keener to demand origin information, according to a study by the federation of French meat companies, Culture Viande. This organisation has shown that faith in the declared origin of a product is a “decisive factor” for 79% of French consumers when they choose meat to purchase.
This understanding has caused the European Commission to strengthen European Union (EU) meat origin controls, such as insisting on spot checks, reinforcing checks on horsemeat (see https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/official_controls/food_fraud/horse_meat/timeline_en) and establishing an EU Food Fraud Network (FFN) of regulators. Mériaux said these changes had an impact: EU meat processors and manufacturers have boosted the responsibility of each link in their supply chains to check the origin of meats; upstream product audits have become more comprehensive; documentation has been improved; physical checks on raw materials during delivery have been boosted; and random laboratory tests are now more common, the UECBV’s chief also noted.
The BEUC official agreed that EU food controls had been tightened since ‘horsegate’ and that the new systems would ensure that food fraudsters were caught and punished, deterring food businesses from cutting corners. However, the BEUC still believes EU regulations could be reformed further by ensuring processed foods’ labels have more comprehensive origin information.
“Today, consumers can know where their cutlet or minced meat comes from, but the information disappears as soon as the meat is used in ready-meals,” the BEUC spokesperson argued, adding, “With nine consumers in 10 who want to know where their meat comes from, origin information should be mandatory on processed meat.”