Horsemeat scandal was a damning indictment of the state of our food

On the rise: posh burgers. PDPhoto.org

European food politics began 2013 with the horsemeat scandal, and it is ending with meat and horsemeat still high on the agenda. The publication of the interim findings from the review chaired by Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast for the UK Government is significant. Deftly written and carefully phrased it makes damning reading.

The horsemeat scandal wasn’t about horsemeat. It was about passing off horsemeat as higher graded and priced meats. It’s about good old fashioned adulteration and fraud. It’s a 21st-century version of something commonplace in the 19th century.

Elliott confirms the scandal has exposed criminal classes muscling in on adulteration as a useful way to siphon money out of both the trade and consumers’ pockets. That burger might look like a burger but what’s in it is not what you expect or bought. It’s food fraud.

Meat is a mucky business

We should not be surprised by this. Meat is a mucky business. And it long has been. Think Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, which exposed dreadful practices in the American meatpacking industry; think UK sausages after compositional standards were abolished under the 1980s Thatcher government.

If meat content drops, what else is in that meat product? Worse, what is claimed to be meat might actually be “mechanically recovered meat”, a sludge extruded from bones and sinew left-overs, about which there were scandals from the late 1980s on. Not all meat is of this ilk, of course. One nice thing in 2013 has been the rise of local specialist butchers where you can buy what you see, and the mince can be minced before your eyes. Even there, it’s a trust relationship.

Whichever way we look at modern developed food systems, the issue of meat looms large. The post-World War II food story often claims that making meat cheaper and thus daily more available to ordinary consumers is one of its great successes. Critics have begun to mount a counter-narrative from health and from environmental perspectives, let alone animal welfare. Meat, particularly processed meats, are bogged down in a persistent troublesome connection with some cancers, and other health impacts associated with fats.

Grain and more greenhouse gases

Using grain to feed animals, which is actually what has delivered cheaper meat over recent decades, is looking increasingly inefficient land-use; more so as population rises and per capita land availability shrinks.

This year’s big report on meat and climate change from the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed there are efficiency gains to be made in reducing such impacts if best farming practice is followed.

But the report echoes other findings that if more people eat more meat – the prognosis currently still seducing policy-makers, with meat being an indicator of consumer prosperity – any efficiency “gains” from better farming practice are wiped out by the simple arithmetic of more mouths chewing more meat and more animals emitting more total greenhouse gases.

On top of this deepening ecological public health crisis for policy-makers come the lessons from the horsemeat scandal. It exposes how the EU’s entire system of confidence building over food safety, post mad cow disease in the 1990s is shaky. The 2000 Food Safety White Paper put great store on traceability and authenticity to rebuild consumer trust in Europe’s capacity to civilise the neo-liberal market model. We consumers are supposed to be able to make wise, informed choices in the marketplace and thus drive business dynamics. The reality is that we buy largely on trust. The EU and UK state said they’d look after that.

In October, even before Elliott’s interim report, the UK’s National Audit Office offered the first official account to come out of the British state about how the horsemeat scandal undermines that trust.

Companies, worried by reputational damage, had of course conducted many private reviews. Alas, they don’t see the light of day. My understanding is many companies were deeply shocked by what they learned from such internal reviews. Supermarket giant Tesco, for one, started making serious commitments to shorten its trade routes and to source more from the UK. Whether it can do so, having led the way to precisely the kind of “efficient” systems – which are now in the spotlight – remains to be seen. The commitment is interesting.

A sorry tale of public failure

And what does Elliott add to this already complex policy-making challenge? He tells a sorry tale of how public functions that protect our food have been cut and so fail us. Public analysts, a backbone since the mid-19th century, have declined in number. Local authority food inspectors are being cut. Laboratories don’t have the most up-to-date equipment or methods. Responsibilities are being fragmented across the state at national level. The Food Standards Agency - our end of the EU’s confidence building bargain - is being whittled away, with some functions just gone, and others handed over to other departments, before again being cut.

All this is being enacted, let’s not forget, in the name of the Coalition government’s obsession about cutting the state to pay for the private sector banking’s crisis. Above all, this is a tale of crime and fraud filling a gap created by political choices.

Elliott accepted that the discovery of horsemeat in burgers knocked confidence. Sales of cheap burgers might have risen, but the memories and scepticism remain. He talks of a culture of “casual dishonesty” in the meat industries, which is unacceptable.

Echoing the National Audit Office, he finds an appalling mess in “intelligence gathering”. This phrase speaks volumes about the parallel systems of governances long noted by academics: some state, some private standards. Industry gathers lots of information. State functionaries used to know a lot but have been cut and cut. Surely, argues Elliott, this means that whatever intelligence is gathered needs to be shared. Yet it isn’t. Indeed, part of the scandal I chose to highlight the moment the scandal emerged is how the giant and ruthless supermarkets, supposed food barons, might know the price of their products and track supplies via satellites, but they didn’t know exactly what was in the meat products. This is what shook industry. They thought they knew.

One lone journalist

As this sorry saga has unfolded throughout 2013, one lone journalist has dug and dug at this. We must pay tribute to the investigative work by Felicity Lawrence of The Guardian. She – almost alone – of British journalists went out into the abattoirs, tracked the labyrinthine supply routes, interviewed and door-stepped the horsemeat trader, and alleged the involvement of organised crime.

How frustrated she must have felt as the UK and European state machinery did precisely nothing. But now, like a white knight on a charger, Elliott enters confirming the need for a new push on organised crime. He proposes setting up a Food Crime Unit hosted within the Food Standards Agency. I welcome that. It could breathe new life not just into the FSA and but into the Conservative-led coalition.

The failure of previous Conservative governments to take food safety and scandals seriously did damage 20 years ago. We remember the then agriculture minister, John Gummer, feeding his daughter Cordelia a burger in the BSE crisis in 1990 to prove all was safe. She refused it, but he ate it instead. If anyone is in the spotlight after the Elliott report, it’s the secretary of state at Defra, Owen Patterson. He’s an active anti-statist and climate-change denier. Will he now accept Elliott’s correct supposition that only the state can sort out issues like food crime?

What do we expect for 30p?

The final thought must go to something Elliott raises about consumers. What on earth do we really expect to be in a burger it it’s being sold to us for £0.30? On page 22 of the Elliott Review is the answer. A real beef burger should cost around 85p, he says. To get it for 30p, offal, mechanically separated meat, and other ingredients are likely to be in there. We have been warned.

The lessons of the horsemeat scandal so far are timely. We get what we pay for. Public health, environmental impacts, land use, climate change, water use, and more, all improve if we cut our meat consumption from today’s high levels. But eating better, grass-fed meat costs more. Equally, if we want trustworthy food and to tackle crime, we need tougher food police. Whether we get and will pay for these will be a defining test for the 21st century relationship between consumers, the state and food commerce.

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