European agriculture and food safety ministers are meeting in Brussels today to discuss the mislabelling of meat products sold in the EU. The emergency meeting was called by Ireland (which currently holds the rotating EU presidency) in response to a growing scandal involving traces of horse meat found in beef burgers and other products sold in Britain, Ireland, France and Sweden.
Investigators are currently working to determine exactly how the contaminated meat entered the supply chain, but the public finger-pointing has already begun in earnest. Originally, Poland was blamed for the scandal, though DNA testing by the Polish authorities seems to suggest otherwise. More recently, accusations have focused on Romania, and Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has been forced to angrily deny his country’s involvement.
No government wants to see anything resembling the BSE crisis of the 1990s, when consumer confidence in British beef evaporated (and, indeed, British beef was banned in the EU for several years). However, it will take time for investigators to verify the source of the contamination, and in the meantime the accusations will likely continue. In 2011, an outbreak of E. Coli in Germany was originally blamed on Spanish vegetables (which were then banned in several European countries), and it took almost a month until the outbreak could finally be traced to a farm in Lower Saxony, Germany.
However, unlike the 2011 E. Coli case, authorities are advising that there is very little risk to public health from eating horse meat burgers. Public outrage has also been markedly stronger in some countries than in others. Indeed, French commentators have been somewhat puzzled by the levels of disgust registered in the UK, where horse meat is seen as somewhat taboo.
So, do we need tougher rules? In response to the scandal, there have already been calls for stronger EU labelling rules. The Socialist group in the European Parliament, for example, is arguing that companies should be forced to “specify which country the meat in their lasagnes and other dishes comes from.”
In Britain, on the other hand, the meat industry is arguing that EU rules are already too tough. Specifically, the rules banning the sale of “Mechanically Separated Meat” (also known as “white slime”) have been blamed. The UK meat industry had previously obtained cheap meat for value product lines by using so-called “Desinewed Meat” (DSM), obtained by “mechanically rubbing the carcasses of cows under high pressure”. However, the European Commission recently ruled that DSM should not be classified as meat, forcing British producers to look outside the UK for cheap suppliers.
What do YOU think? Would tougher EU rules forcing companies to label where meat comes from have helped to avoid the horse meat scandal? Or would it merely lead to a witch-hunt against food from Eastern Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.