Horsemeat debacle mocks ‘farm to fork’ promise

The horsemeat scandal has exposed flaws in the food chain which will unsettle consumers unless something is done, writes Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at University College Dublin. 

The horsemeat scandal has shone the spotlight on a food chain, which we thought had robust controls, good traceability, tight regulatory oversight and supermarkets demanding private standards from their suppliers in excess of the legal requirements.

However, with each passing day, new revelations demonstrate that the food chain is only as strong as its weakest link – and there appear to be some disturbing links. The longer the food chain, and the more steps in the chain, the more opportunities for things to go wrong. More players in the food chain increases the likelihood that one could be a shoddy operator – or worse still, a criminal.

Farmers are asked to comply with onerous standards, and do so willingly in the interest of protecting their sector and their livelihoods. But they are angry that shoddy practices, lack of attention to detail and criminal activity further up the chain have undermined all their efforts.

Retailers’ and manufacturers’ brands and reputations are only as secure as the standards of their weakest supplier, yet some seem to have forgotten this in their efforts to secure ingredients at rock-bottom prices.

I used to ask companies: “Would you jump out of a plane with a parachute packed by one of your suppliers?” If the answer is no, you must delist them, as the life of your company could be on the line.

“You don’t always get what you pay for, but you will eventually pay for what you get, as happened here.”
Patrick Wall

The current debacle has made a mockery about claims of “farm to fork” traceability and “approved suppliers” as exemplified by the revelations relating to the Swedish firm Findus, which supplies British supermarkets.

It employed a French company, Comigel, to make its ready-meals. To source meat for its manufacturing facility in Luxembourg, Comigel used another French firm, Spanghero. It in turn used an agent in Cyprus, which used an agent in the Netherlands, which placed the order at an abattoir in Romania.

To the public, a picture of a farmer behind the meat counter gives reassurance as to the source of the meat in-store. The realisation of the role of meat traders as middlemen dealing in meat like banks deal in currency, has firmly knocked this notion on the head for processed meats. The public, and many farmers, are unaware of the role of meat traders, but they have always existed, and trade in frozen pallets of meat globally, matching supply with demand.

Many major meat processors have meat trading divisions and other stand-alone traders exist, some operating from offices with no processing facilities or cold stores. The Irish Food and Safety Authority’s (FSAI) food fraud investigation squad had identified Chinese honey masquerading as Irish honey, cheaper pollock being used instead of cod in chip shops and farmed salmon being passed off as wild.

But the identification of horsemeat substituted as beef is the biggest discovery to date and it appears to have exposed a pan-EU fraud. With horsemeat selling on average for €900/t (£780/t) and visual lean beef trim at €3,500 (£3,000), there were huge profits to be made by those engaged in wholesale substitution in the processed meat market.

The fundamental deficiency in traceability has to be addressed. DNA testing is capable of identifying species and its increased use in the food chain will identify those engaged in illegal practices.

Investigations are ongoing in Poland and Romania and other member states, to see where the substitution has occurred, but no conclusion has yet been reached.

Historically, farmers have complied with food quality assurance schemes, such as the Red Tractor, to gain access to retail space. The schemes were also seen as consumer marketing strategies.

It has been a costly lesson for the retailers that these schemes are as much about reduction of business risk to themselves as giving consumers confidence.

Hopefully the retailers have learned a lesson that by forcing prices down, they only incentivise criminal activity. You don’t always get what you pay for, but you will eventually pay for what you get, as happened here.

A more strategic relationship with suppliers, based on mutual respect, with each looking out for the others’ interest, will result in a more sustainable business model and prevent reoccurrences of this debacle. Honest, transparent labelling must become the order of the day for consumers.

The need for a shorter supply chain for meat is compelling, so farmers should take heart that out of this crisis their efforts in quality control will be highlighted and duly recognised.

The days of rock-bottom prices must end, because unless everyone can get a reasonable margin, we will stumble from crisis to crisis in the food industry.

Dr Patrick Wall is associate professor of public health at University College Dublin and former chief executive of the FSAI.

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