Horse-meat scandal is about breach of consumer trust

The plot thickened when some Findus and Aldi products were found to contain 100% horse meat. Ian Langsdon/AAP

Woolworths has announced it will conduct DNA tests on its home-brand meals in response to horse meat contamination in Europe. The uproar follows revelations by Irish food inspectors in mid-January that horse meat had been detected in burgers sold in UK supermarket chains.

The story intensified when some Findus and Aldi products labelled as beef were found to be 100% horse meat and may now involve as many as 16 European countries. In response to the growing evidence for widespread mislabelling, the EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg has now urged all EU member states to implement random DNA testing of processed beef products, for a three-month period beginning March 1.

By saying it will test what it sells here, Woolworths is indicating to both the government and the public that it recognises the issue has become an identifiable risk. And it wants to assure customers that its products are legitimate.

Still, there’s no sign of a problem in Australia that’s similar to what’s happening in Europe, which seems to be in the grip of what is ostensibly economic fraud – the substitution of horse meat in products sold as beef. There don’t seem to be any specific food safety issues involved, although some commentators have raised the possibility of contamination with veterinary pharmaceuticals, which could have a negative impact on human health.

The issue is economic rather than nutritional. People eat meat because they enjoy it – they enjoy the texture and the flavour. Often people become accustomed to the flavour of the meat they eat, so horse meat may taste different, possibly “gamey”, but it’s easy to become accustomed to this.

Horse meat is generally very lean but otherwise nutritionally similar to beef or sheep. It’s a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals (especially iron) and healthy fatty acids (omega-3).

So, at the heart of the issue is a breach of trust for economic gain rather than being fed something unthinkable. Products have been labelled as containing beef, when they may in fact contain up to 100% horse meat. But let’s go back to the problem of veterinary pharmaceuticals. Some of these compounds are painkillers and since the human body responds differently to such drugs compared to horses, we get into dangerous territory for human health.

The substance causing the most concern is phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug given to horses for the treatment of lameness, pain and fever. It’s no longer used to treat humans and is not supposed to enter the food chain because it may cause a range of side effects. Some of these are quite serious, such as aplastic anaemia (bone marrow failure) in some people. But authorities in the United Kingdom have declared the illegal horse meat in the food safe to eat.

The difficulty for any regulator, such as the UK Food Standards Agency, is the same as the public faces. There has to be some degree of trust, let’s say, truth in labelling. If a supplier indicates that a food contains particular ingredients, then one can expect it will. Once again, what we’re talking about here is a breach of trust and that’s what’s unacceptable.

For food standards authorities around the world, the question is, does any agency have the ability to test everything? We think that’s what lies at the heart of the matter here. No agency has the resources to test everything and compliance with accepted food standard codes and labelling is vital.

But Europe will recover. Generally speaking, recovery from a scandal of this kind begins with a phase of greater accountability, and a requirement for food manufacturers to provide more independent evidence substantiating the authenticity of ingredients. Rogue operators shown to be breaching trust and behaving fraudulently are punished and banned. This is what we can expect to happen in the coming weeks. The EU Health Commissioner’s announcement suggests that the cleanout has begun.