Only a couple of days ago, I was at lunch with friends at IKEA, where my friends were enjoying Kottbullar (the Swedish meatballs) and joking around that they were hopefully horse meat free. Yesterday, that joke turned sour as IKEA was the last in a series of enterprises that found horse DNA in their processed beef products. They joined Nestle, Findus, and supermarkets Lidl, Tesco, and Aldi among others which had to pull their products from their shelves as the European food scandal widened and showcased the interdependent and, frankly, incomprehensible scale of the current food system.
This interactive map of European horse meat trade gives a first glimpse at the linkages between countries and the realities of a common market with free trade flows. The supply chains particularly of low-cost economy products are so long that, according to management consultants KPMG, there are around 450 points in the chain where integrity can break down and false or adulterated products can be introduced.
This enormous interconnected supply network is the reason why, as Andrew Watt argues, decisive supranational EU legislation is necessary to ensure the achievement of national priorities with regard to food safety and consumer protection. Without that, there exists the risk that individual countries engage in a race to the bottom with regard to regulatory measures in order to attract more businesses, with consumers across Europe losing out in the process.
A recent trend towards deregulation and industry self-policing has in the case of Britain, for example, led to a decrease in government-employed food hygiene inspectors from 1,700 at the time of the BSE crisis to around 800 today. This blind trust in food processors and retailers has been criticized by environmental health experts and the UK opposition alike, who call for redoubled independent oversight efforts and shorter supply chains.
However, currently a shift in a different direction seems to be envisioned by the British and EU legislators. This article exposes that according to internal documents from the U.K. Food Standards Authority (FSA), “the UK is to move away from regular inspections of abattoirs [slaughterhouses] to a “risk-based” system that unions representing meat-processing workers say will lead to a drop in standards.” Apparently, the EU is considering the removal of physical inspections of abattoirs, while “food business operators (FBOs) would be given greater responsibility” and “trained plant staff were permitted to carry out some tasks at postmortem inspection”. Under the recent circumstances, this seems a controversial step to take, especially considering the fact that NGOs have found animal welfare breaches in eight out of nine undercover investigations of slaughterhouses in the current system already.
With the current length of the food supply chain, there is no need to assume that all companies are inherently fraudulent or have the explicit aim to trick customers to stand up for stronger legislation and regulatory oversight – rather, the more actors are involved, the more difficult it is to attribute responsibility for each single actor, and the more challenging it will be to organize and enforce self-policing. A strong legal and regulatory presence can thus help to prevent buck-passing and coordination mistakes, as well as control for intentional misconduct.
And as to shorter supply chains, UK butchers report an up to 20% increase in overall sales and even +30% sales of minced meat since the scandal erupted. It will be interesting to see whether these consumption habits will stick even once the scandal has vanished from the headlines.
Bonus: Follow the trail of the horse meat scandal below… And listen to Food Safety professor Chris Elliot make an important point towards the very end, attributing part of the responsibility for the scandal to consumers who want to purchase food at very low prices without looking behind the scenes of production.