News-Abator Roma

The joke potential of the horsemeat scandal is just too good to ignore:
So a horse walks into a bar and the barman says: ‘Sorry mate, we don’t serve food in here’.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has told the Food Standards Agency to investigate claims that regular warnings of horsemeat entering the food chain were ignored.

Public anguish at revelations that we’ve been eating Shergarburgers has now eclipsed outrage at tax-avoidance by Amazon and Starbucks. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has told the Food Standards Agency to investigate claims that regular warnings of horsemeat entering the food chain were ignored. The Meat Hygiene Service allegedly warned DEFRA two years ago that the ‘horse passport’ scheme designed to stop horsemeat from entering the food chain was not working – ironically because of concerns about British horsemeat exports of which there are some 9,000 animals a year. The service was worried about the 75 UK organisations which can issue horse passports and make it easy for fraudulent traders to export horse carcasses as beef.

Ignoring the warnings may have been doubly-unfortunate as the Romanian government has banned horse carts from public roads as ‘not consistent with membership of the EU’ and horsemeat has sometimes been found to contain the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone. This can be dangerous to humans but the risks are pretty slim so anyone consuming horsemeat is likely to remain stable.

This agricultural co-operative is accused of fraudulently re-labelling some 750 tonnes of horsemeat before selling it onto manufacturers like Findus who churned-out some 4.5 million ready-made meals in 13 countries.

Where did all the horses end up? Not, it seems the Welsh retirement home for pit ponies in Pontypridd but the French meat processor, Spanghero near Toulouse. This agricultural co-operative is accused of fraudulently re-labelling some 750 tonnes of horsemeat before selling it onto manufacturers like Findus who churned-out some 4.5 million ready-made meals in 13 countries. The irony of selling horsemeat onto the ‘Rosbifs’ may not have been lost on the French government but given how snobby they are about their reputation for cuisine the Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon promptly closed it down.

Testing by the FSA has so far identified seven different products which have been withdrawn from sale: Tesco value frozen burgers and spaghetti bolognese, Aldi’s special frozen beef lasagne and spaghetti bolognese, the Co-op’s frozen quarter-pounder burgers, Findus beef lasagne and Rangeland’s catering burgers. There’s no mention of any other Quarterpandas. The Chief Executive of the FSA, Catherine Brown has confirmed the number of people in schools, prisons and hospitals who have unknowingly eaten horsemeat will never be known but also confirmed there is no public health risk as it was hygienically processed. She did though admit that personally she wouldn’t eat a Findus Lasagne and the solution was more accurate testing and labelling. From now on, meat processors will have to clear even more hurdles.

Some industry sources are claiming EU Directive 854/2004 is the root cause of the scandal. The BSE and E-Coli.crises of the 1990’s forced the UK to introduce stringent inspection requirements to a point where our meat hygiene regime was generally considered to be the best in the world. A meat inspector would be present on a daily basis in meat processing plants inspecting carcasses and coldrooms, but after the directive the FSA and DEFRA cut costs and staff numbers from 1,700 to around 800 today. As a result it might now be anything up to 8 weeks between inspections which leaves plenty of time for a rogue operator to pass off horsemeat as beef to his customers.

The 2006 EU Directive defined the inspection requirements so that inspectors need only be present ‘with a frequency appropriate to achieving the objectives of this regulation’. This so-called ‘light touch’ approach is consistent with EU policy of placing responsibility for safety on producers by self-assessment of the risks rather than enforcing compliance through government inspection. This is obviously much cheaper to implement and consistent with EU directives on issues such as Health & Safety. The ultimate sanction for non-compliance is criminal prosecution and an unlimited fine.

‘Consumer confidence in meat products is once again very low and true consumer protection will not be achieved until daily, unannounced inspections are back in place.’

In response to the public outcry the FSA has now introduced additional unannounced inspections at meat plants, but whether this is happening at foreign plants is unclear. Unison, the trade union representing the meat inspectors said: ‘Meat inspection, Environmental health and Trading standard services have been severely reduced by government cuts and light touch regulation. Consumer confidence in meat products is once again very low and true consumer protection will not be achieved until daily, unannounced inspections are back in place.’

If you want to know more about what has gone wrong with the food chain I can recommend two books by investigative journalist Joanna Blythman: ‘Shopped: The shocking power of British supermarkets’ and ‘Bad Food Britain – How a nation ruined it’s appetite’. Sources close to Downing Street say Owen Paterson has already bought up all unsold copies. In a newspaper article Joanna pointed out the blindingly-obvious:

‘If we want to eat safe, wholesome food that won’t make us fat or ill, we need to choose unprocessed ingredients and cook them ourselves. The very essence of food processing is taking apart natural foods and reinventing them in a value-added form that is more lucrative for their makers. The horsemeat fiasco has merely provided us with a snapshot of just how under-policed, and liable to fraud and adulteration, manufactured ready meals and processed meat products really are’.

So a man orders a burger in a restaurant. The waitress says: ‘Would you like anything on that?’ and he says: ‘Yes, a fiver each way’.

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