The horsemeat scandal: collateral damage
By Edwin Laurent OBE, CMG
The recent discovery of horsemeat parading as beef in mince, ready meals and other foods is too widespread and the amounts found too high, in some cases 100%, to be due to accident or negligence.
The scandal, involving big names such as Nestlé, Tesco and Asda, will have far-reaching implications, not just for consumers but all the way along the food supply chain.
As scams go, this one, at least on the surface, is arguably not such a big deal. So far, there is no indication of the products being unsafe or unfit for human consumption.
This is mild stuff when compared with notorious scandals such as the addition in 2008 in China of the chemical melamine to baby formula to make it appear to have higher protein content.
That action claimed more than 300,000 victims; 860 babies were taken to hospital and six died.
Criminal prosecutions followed.
Two people were executed, a third was given a suspended death penalty, two received 15-year jail terms and three more were locked up for life.
Seven local government officials were fired or forced to resign. The scandal greatly damaged the reputation of China's food exports.
The quick profit motive
Schemers tend not to be swayed by anything other than immediate selfish considerations as they seek a quick profit.
Just four years before, China had undergone an even worse scam involving watered-down baby milk and formula of minimal food value. That time, many more infants died - of malnutrition.
Although exemplary justice had been meted out then, the lure of easy profit at the expense of a trusting and unsuspecting public was clearly too enticing for even the threat of harsh punishment to dissuade the unscrupulous.
Consumers, of course, feel let down and cheated by having horsemeat passed off as beef in mince and processed food.
Even though this scandal in the UK and in Europe is not of comparable magnitude to these criminal acts in China, it raises serious systemic concerns.
A system based on trust
The functioning of our contemporary but highly complex food production and delivery systems are founded on trust.
At one end, we hand over our money to the supermarket, the shop or restaurant in exchange for the food products that we want.
We do this even if we might not be able to prove that the goods are exactly what the seller claims, that they are free of contamination and are of the quality we expect and for which we are paying.
We go by the label. In essence, we trust the seller and the control and regulatory system.
The retailer would have purchased from another supplier or processor, also exercising a certain degree of trust, since every batch in a transaction cannot be tested to prove that it is exactly what the seller claims.
This trust would have been applied at each stage of the supply chain, stretching all the way back to its source, the farmer.
Now that trust, on which the supply system depends, has been severely undermined by the recognition that the regulatory and control mechanism has been blind to and has not prevented unscrupulous and dishonest processors and distributors from selling us food that is different from, and maybe inferior to, what we pay for.
The World Health Organisation branded the 2008 milk contamination case in China as "clearly not an isolated accident, [but] a large-scale intentional activity to deceive consumers for simple, basic, short-term profits".
Maybe this same description also applies to what has been happening in the UK and Europe.
The requirement for testing the presence of foreign DNA in a particular product is not routine and only conducted for a specific animal type, when there are specific grounds for suspicion.
So chicken, pork, lamb, kangaroo and who knows what else could be ending up where it should not.
Traces of pork were recently discovered in Halal-certified meals provided to some prisons. Just consider the distress of devout Muslims upon finding out that they could unwittingly have been eating pork.
What worries many consumers is that, if these abuses can occur and were not prevented or immediately detected by the checks in the regulatory system, then how long might they actually have been going on for?
And even worse, what other unreported abuses have taken place? What else might have been in our food? Have adequate sanitation standards been observed etc?
The danger of the knee-jerk response
These are not unreasonable fears. We can expect that, given the opportunity, there will always be some unscrupulous supplier prepared to place profit ahead of the welfare of the consumer, but the regulatory system that we have relied on to prevent this happening has failed.
Therefore what, if any, assurances or security are we left with?
A fully understandable and justified wave of public indignation is sweeping the UK and Europe. This will push politicians to act - and their most likely response will be tougher regulation and control.
But this approach might not be as helpful as one might think.
Under current arrangements, products move freely between the rest of Europe and the UK.
Therefore, even if sanitary and phytosanitary border checks are made more stringent, there can be no routine scrutiny on imports from the EU.
This arrangement is a fundamental tenet of the EU Single Market and will not change.
So how can the authorities show that they are doing something?
The danger is that their knee-jerk response could be to apply greater zeal in the regulation and inspection of the food products that can be checked, i.e. those from outside the EU.
Of course, the problem is internal to the UK and the EU, but that “inconvenient detail” might well be overlooked.
Additional regulatory hurdles and scrutiny could though prove more than a mere irritant to food exporters from the Caribbean and Africa, who do not possess sophisticated domestic testing and certification capabilities.
Consequently, unlike their counterparts in the US or Australia, they will invariably be more heavily reliant on the checking by the EU inspectors.
Exporters of beef, fish, vegetables and processed foods, already having to cope with the onerous Global GAP regime, can find that they, too, pay for an abuse to which they are not party.
Similarly, Caribbean consumers are also at risk, lacking even the safeguards enjoyed by Europeans.
In 2011, the ACP Caribbean imported 776m euros’ worth of food and agricultural products from the EU.
But since it does not have the sophisticated capability for DNA testing of meat and meat products, it is obliged to rely on the certification of the EU authorities.
But what happens if the certificates can no longer be trusted?
The unfortunate consequence of the horsemeat scam is that its main victims will be those least able to protect themselves.
In the UK and Europe, these are families on tight budgets who can afford only the cheapest food.
In the Caribbean, they are consumers who have no means of determining whether the imported meat products are what they purport to be; and secondly, the region’s food exporters, who might well face additional and unjustified hurdles exporting to Europe.
[Edwin Laurent has served as an Eastern Caribbean Ambassador to Europe and worked in London for the Commonwealth. He has recently been awarded the Cross of the Order of St Lucia for contributions to economic development.]