A food scandal is making headlines across Europe: instead of beef, large amounts of horsemeat ended up in ready-to-eat meals. The EU is discussing the case.
No one knows the actual magnitude of the current horsemeat scandal at this point, nor who is responsible. But that is about to change.
Britain's Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has again called a meeting with leading representatives of the food industry to discuss what steps to take. Paterson, who urged an examination of all beef products, meets Wednesday (13.02.2013) with EU officials in Brussels to work out an action plan.
The horsemeat scandal began about a month ago when traces of horsemeat were discovered in beef burgers sold in British and Irish supermarkets. Last week, tests showed that beef lasagne contained horsemeat as well, sometimes the content was up to 100 percent. Investigations led to French producers who bought their meat in Romania.
Authorities in France and other EU states were not able to pinpoint for how long and to what degree this deceit with horsemeat has been going on. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said probes show that no company on Romanian soil has broken EU rules.
As a precautionary measure, the German "Kaiser's Tengelmann" supermarket chain removed all frozen lasagne from its freezers last week to have the produce checked. Although the Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner gave the all-clear on Monday, it now seems likely that falsely declared products containing horsemeat have indeed hit the market in Germany.
Greenpeace spokesman Jürgen Knirsch said the horsemeat scandal shows how insufficient the labeling of food is in Germany. The supply chain is obscure, he told DW. "We need a clear system that allows us to trace the product." The expert for sustainable consumption said it is not only important to know what is in a product, "but also where the meat comes from."
Appropriate technology is available, but it is not in use due to its cost. With a system called "F-Trace," for example, consumers could use the Internet to trace a product all the way back to the farm - provided it was produced in Germany.
"If I buy things in Ireland today and in Cyprus tomorrow, in order to produce things as cheaply as possible, then of course such a labeling system is difficult," Knirsch said.
Cheap horsemeat from eastern Europe
Even if the perpetrators are still unknown, the motive behind the meat scandal is assumed to be mere greed for monetary gain. "If you mix horse meat into your beef, it can be a way to really save money," says food industry expert Udo Pollmer of the European Institue for Food and Nutrition. "In some countries in eastern Europe, you still have lots of horse carriages in use. And that's where horses are beasts of burden and horse meat is cheap." Already a few percentage points of different meat can often mean a significant profit gain, Pollmer explains. Past cases where beef was mixed with cheaper pork serve to illustrate this..
The fact that the meat might come from Eastern Europe is not really an issue says Pollmer. "I'd be happy if it came from there because over here, horse owners give their horses whatever medicine is posh and expensive. In Eastern Europe they simply don't have the money for that." Should the horse meat come from Western Europe, it might in the end be the bigger scandal. Because in this case it could mean that meat was being used which was never intended for consumption."
Irish authorities are currently checking meat products for Phenylbutazone - a drug given to horses against pain and fever. It's illegal to use an animal treated with "bute" for meat production.
The horse as a domestic animal
The fact that the scandal is causing such widespread attention is not due to possible health risks or violation of labeling laws. Instead, "horses for us have the status of domestic animals," Pollmer explains. Germany has many horse lovers and eating horse meat is simply taboo.
So what about Germany's meat sector? The scandal won't really have any negative effect for the country's 14,000 butchers, believes Martin Fuchs, head of the German Butchers Association. Quite the contrary, he says. Food scandals usually lead to consumers mistrusting the larger companies. And that in turn means better business for the small and medium sized producers.