As the horsemeat scandal continues to rage through Europe, policymakers and industry are starting to reflect on what caused the crisis, and how it can be avoided in the future. In a recent meeting held in Brussels, EU health and consumer policy commissioner Tonio Borg told members of the European Parliament’s health and food safety committee that it was a lack of proper controls and dissuasive sanctions on fraud in European Union (EU) countries that had caused the scandal.
Legislation not the problem
‘This isn’t a question of legislation – the legislation is in place and is good legislation,’ he stated. ‘It requires labelling of ingredients in each and every food product containing meat. It’s a problem of enforcement.’
Concurring, Jean-Luc Mériaux, secretary general of European Livestock and Meat Trading Union (UECBV), said: ‘The fraud is the act of a very small minority of operators and involved a tiny percentage of the EU meat and meat products production.’ Both emphasised that the current legislation shouldn’t be questioned because of the fraud.
According to EU rules, member states are responsible for implementing the so-called farm-to-fork food safety legislation. ‘The frontline of the enforcement has to remain in the hands of the member states,’ Borg noted, adding that the European Commission doesn’t have the legal and administrative capacity to enforce laws directly.
The European Commission, which monitors the number of random checks national veterinary authorities perform in slaughterhouses and food companies, will release data on this topic in mid-April. However, according to Irish MEP Mairead MacGuinness, the random nature of inspections is one of the underlying causes of the current scandal. This, coupled with a lack of hard sanctions for those committing fraud in the food chain, helped to create an atmosphere of laxity where the mislabelling of horsemeat was able to take place.
‘It’s almost risk-free to do wrong today,’ Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter told a parliamentary debate earlier in February. ‘We have the problem of [a] food authority seeing [the food] industry as partners and friends and not taking the role of the responsible parents: when a company does wrong, you should have a fine or a prison penalty.’
Dissuasive sanctions against food fraud
According to European Commission’s health and consumer policy spokesperson Frédéric Vincent, at the moment Brussels does not have an overview of sanctions applied in EU countries for mislabelling of food and meat products, but this could change. Borg is preparing a proposal asking member states to introduce dissuasive sanctions against food fraud that are at least equal to the resulting economic gain. ‘This would be better than imprisonment, although we shouldn’t even exclude imprisonment itself,’ he added.
Mériaux said that there’s a good lesson to be drawn from this scandal in that food business operators will strengthen their audit system. ‘As far as I know, neither the farmers, nor the slaughterhouses or the deboning halls industries are involved in the fraud,’ he said.
Improve rather than introduce food safety tests
EU lawmakers aren’t the only players drawing lessons from this crisis. Retailers, who had to withdraw the mislabelled food products from their shelves, have pledged to review the management of their supply chains and traceability, according to Marina Valverde López, food and nutrition adviser at EuroCommerce in Brussels. For many, this will mean improving rather than introducing food safety tests.
‘We change testing regimes regularly, based on intelligence from both the food industry and national food safety authorities to prevent contamination, but there was no indication that horsemeat was an issue,’ she stated.
‘These incidents aren’t tantamount to a systemic breakdown of the meat supply chain,’ stressed Dirk Dobbelaere, secretary general of the Liaison Centre for the Meat Processing Industry in the EU (CLITRAVI). However, he believed this incident should make food businesses review their raw material and ingredients’ sourcing policies and, in some cases, even shorten their supply chains. He agreed testing was a good idea, but not used extensively and on a long-term basis. ‘Very extensive testing on a prolonged basis isn’t sustainable, due to cost and the constraints of testing equipment and laboratory facilities,’ he added.