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Year of the Horse February 12, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy.

When a Tory Environment Minister calls for three monthly testing of meat to ensure it is what is says it is on the packaging then it’s time to admit that the current systems in place are seriously askew. But that’s precisely what happened yesterday when…

The British food industry relies excessively on trust and paper-based reassurance about food content, as opposed to random testing at every stage of the food chain, the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has admitted.

Giving a Commons statement on the escalating horsemeat scandal, Paterson said he wanted to see random testing introduced as quickly as possible.

The current crisis – and yes, let’s call it a crisis, over horse DNA and meat being found in what supposedly are other products appears to be growing. And not least in that it points up the sheer paucity of the systems in place as regards the provenance of foodstuffs.

This side of the Irish Sea the Phoenix in its current edition in an excellent piece on the woes of FG Minister Simon Coveney – sitting this out in Agriculture, notes a:

…a promise – unfulfilled – made in the coalition government’s programme for government and stated twice for emphasis, to deal with the country’s disjointed food safety regime. According to the grandiosely titled Statement of Common Purpose, it was stated under the heading, Supporting SMEs. “We will create a single food safety monitoring agency, building on the existing Food Safety Authority, responsible for food safety inspection from farm to fork. This will enhance the food traceability system and reduce the burden of red tape on business”. This commitment was repeated under the section headed, Agriculture.

And it continues by referencing the fact that food monitoring is split between the FSA and the Department of Agriculture in a way which those of us of a cynical mind might ascribe to generating expedient outcomes.

Still, all this has finally prodded Coveney to action:

…[he] said [last] evening he would be asking Irish manufacturers of processed meat products to carry out DNA testing and to work with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) in developing testing protocols for this purpose.

Not before time.

The Minister said the move was a “necessary step in order to provide further reassurance to Irish consumers and consumers of Irish food abroad”.

That might be just a bit late given the latest revelation that Tesco’s frozen Everyday Value Spaghetti Bolognese product which is meant to be made from Irish beef was yet another product with more horse than most would expect or want. And those horses surely weren’t Irish. Probably.

And food safety is central and political dynamite as well. Joe O’Brien, former RTÉ agriculture correspondent asks the pertinent question:

But where does this leave the consumer? The authorities insist that the horse meat crisis is not one of food safety but rather one of labelling. That is serious enough given that the public is entitled to know what they are eating and paying for.

Well. Yes. And he’s right, that from the perspective of the authorities, in this instance putting aside the yuch factor, for some, of eating horse meat so far it doesn’t appear to be a safety issue – though to put it that way is to make a virtue of necessity. But it could so easily be an issue of food safety. And it has been in the past.

Moreover it somewhat makes a mockery of the efforts to improve the system so far. Or as O’Brien notes:

Farmers today rightly feel let down by the horse meat controversy after all their work in improving hygiene and beef quality. They have also invested a lot of effort in traceability systems enabling food to be tracked from “farm to fork”.

Now again, being cynical, one wonders precisely how useful the ‘traceability’ regime is, after all putting to one side immediate outbreaks of ill health longer term conditions that might be generated by meat consumption could take years at which point tracing them back to a given source would be impossible. But, that traceability system at least means that it is possible to determine what one is eating, one hopes.

And let’s also be clear that labelling is no great shakes either. Recently I’ve noticed that there are products in various supermarkets which don’t have proper labelling of fats, saturated fats, salt and so on. But, as O’Brien notes correctly, in all this the interests of the people who actually consume these foods is put last.

Not enough financial clout, presumably. Not important enough for anything more than essentially light touch regulation and the sense that the market will provide. And if it’s horse meat that’s served up unknowingly, well, hey, it won’t kill anyone – probably.

Long past time that attitude and approach was challenged.

Even the Tories agree.


1. Cass Flower (@cassflower) - February 12, 2013

A UK Food Safety eminence/official said in an RTE interview that the problem is that food is produced as a commodity for sale. Nutrition and health are minor considerations.


WorldbyStorm - February 12, 2013



2. Ringacoltig - February 12, 2013

Coveney is the Minister for Agriculture. This is a public health issue and should be dealt with by the Minister for Health, or perhaps he too busy bumping his favourite projects up the priority list.

The real issue isn’t the presence of horse meat, it is the fact that nobody seems to know or care what goes into these products. Some years ago, during the Foot & Mouth scare, people were being stopped at the border and their cars searched in case they might attempt to bring a ham sandwich across the border. Every car had to be disinfected. Yet major meat processors can bring in horsemeat and unknown additives and it doesn’t come to light for who knows how long. Surely one needs an import licence to bring in foreign food produce (just as export licences are required)? What testing of imported food or additives is being done? It is more than 20 years since the late Tomás Mac Giolla and others raised the issue of rebranding animal carcasses in the Dáil only to be shouted down by government and some opposition deputies. Anything up to €1 billion was spent on the subsequent Tribunal, mostly on legal fees, yet this can happen still in 2013. Heads didn’t roll then and they won’t roll now. Anyone involved in this should never be allowed near the food industry again.


LeftAtTheCross - February 12, 2013



WorldbyStorm - February 12, 2013

I hope I stressed that point in the above, in a way whether it’s horse meat or not is a diversion as you say. It’s the contents. I remember the TMacG debate well. Twenty years. BSE/CJD, foot and mouth, and what’s changed?

I actually stopped eating beef for the best part of a decade.


LeftAtTheCross - February 12, 2013

Living out here in cattle country I’d have a reasonable level of confidence in the quality of Irish beef. Talking to neighbours who are cattle farmers it does appear to be fairly well regulated, at least if the amount of whinging that goes on is any indication of the level of difficulty in working around the regulations!

Sheep would appear to be less regulated, so if you’re going to give up red meat you might be better starting there.

As for chicken, the supermarkets dictate the margins on that down to the cent. A neighbour mentioned that if he even got an extra 20c per chicken off the supermarkets he’d be able to produce a far higher quality product. I’m guessing that lack of quality maps into feed quality and also drugs, as the neighbour stated producers pack as many chickens as possible into the houses (as many as possible under the existing regulations) and there’s a rate of disease associated with that which they have to work around, I guess by dosing them with anti-biotics.

Food production is big business, food is a commodity, and profit is the driver. if people want healthy food they really need to grow it themselves or personally know and trust their suppliers. That’s how it is really. Not too many options there for most people!


WorldbyStorm - February 12, 2013

That sounds very persuasive. I’d think that beef is probably very well regulated. Others less so. But as you say not a lot of options for people.


3. Ringacoltig - February 12, 2013

I don’t mean that animal carcases were actually rebranded in the Dáil, but even that wouldn’t surprise me


4. CL - February 12, 2013

‘Welfare experts estimate that since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, as many as 20,000 horses have been abandoned.’-Not surprising if in a ‘free market’ environment some of these have entered the food chain,-with a threat to health, and of course the reputational damage to the food industry.


5. fergal - February 12, 2013

Food is an industry and herein lies the issue. As Cass Flower comments ;it’s not about health or nutrition. What about taste?Can food be an industry. Small surely is beautiful here;small farmers that actually know their land,small butchers,small markets(and not the so-called farmers’ markets without a farmer to be seen),small businesses and food artisans.Can processed food ever be 100 per cent pure?
Was it in Italy that the Slow Food movement began? Didn’t Jamie Oliver claim that over half the processed food brought in Europe was purchased in Britain? Despite the propaganda, it would be safe enough to say that we can’t be far behind our neighbours.
Food is political the trick is to make sure it’s democratic.


WorldbyStorm - February 12, 2013

That’s an interesting stat re processed food and the UK. I’d love to know if that’s correct. Telling if it was.

Democratic control is paramount. It’s funny, isn’t it, how that keeps being forgotten – or evaded, and again Ringacoltig’s point re the debates about rebranding and the response from our supposed ‘democratic’ reps says it all.


6. fergal - February 13, 2013

WbS-got the reference,it’s towards the start of Oliver’s Ministry of Food…and it’s half of Europe’s ready meals which are bought in Britain..not processed food.not quite the same oops!
How many books has Jamie Oliver written?
I like his story of meeting a binman(person) in Italy who told him that he ate as well as the Queen of England!
The French celebrity chef,Novelli,tells a story about his mam growing up in Corsica. She was a cleaner,so obviously a modest background. They had no fridge,so Novelli’s mam before going to work early in the morning would nip over to the market and buy some fish. She would then marinate them in a local wine with some olive oil and leave them there for the day. Supper then became a lovely fish dish.
What these stories illustrate is that good food is not the preserve of the middle class.You don’t have to spend a fortune eating in restaurants recommended by the Irish Times.On the contrary.


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