The horsegate scandal in which horse meat ended up as purported beef in frozen Lasagna dishes (and frozen spaghettis with Bolognaise sauce) has once again put the spotlight on the fragility of food safety in modern society.
Strictly speaking, the horsegate affair is not about a danger to public health – the meat is/was edible, but it was not what customers believed to be buying.
In the modern market economy, the food chain can become rather long and complicated indeed because of the different interests and aims of the parties involved.
Firstly, there is a food company that proposes products to customers in competition with other food companies.
Secondly, there are retailers that decide how much access their customers can have to the products of the food companies. They can decide purely on the basis of the popularity among clients of the products, or they can seek to maximise their earnings by trading off some customer preferences against lower-priced, but sometimes higher-margin, products to be sold alongside “star products”.
The retailer can also allow, block or participate in promotions of articles.
Finally, some retailers may be seeking discount prices or, on the other end of the price scale, premium quality to serve their chosen customer segment.
In the premium sector the buyers, especially the wholesale buyers, are astute enough to distinguish fakes from the genuine article, even though there appear to be more black truffles sold as tuber melanosporum than the total harvest and there seems to be an abundance of Bresse chickens. (The Bresse area is 40 by 100 km and there are 1.2 million chickens per year, so there is room...)
It is in the more “economic” sector that some tricks take place, but not all of them are necessarily fraudulent or even dangerous. To get a low price in the store, you need to have low costs. The costs depend on sourcing, logistics and handling costs. That is where the “dealers” come in. In the case of the Lasagna there were apparently even two dealers – one in the Netherlands and one in Cyprus.
The food company, or at least the food company's supply chain, needs “input”. The dealers try to find the input available at the lowest cost, transport included. That may mean a lower quality.
In itself, there is no problem as long as the quality requirements are properly agreed on and respected. But due to the multiplication of middlemen in this sourcing and production process, the controls have become as open as the borders in the European union. It is not difficult to abuse this situation.
On top of that, there is no European food authority as such. There is one, the EFSA based in Parma with a French executive director, but it only coordinates and advises, it is up to the “risk managers” to act. Those are at country and regional level.
How do we beef up the controls? Adding a few thousand inspectors does not make the system fool-proof. There needs to be a clear incentive for all parties involved to respect a code of conduct on origin and traceability.
That means heavy financial penalties in case of infractions, that means “name and shame” lists for firms working at the edge, that means open databases with information on products, it means clear labelling and communication to consumers about how to read this information.
In the end, it is not up to me or anybody to prevent a retailer from selling goods from a food company that have a low price and are of of low, but adequate, quality.
But the consumer should be able to believe that when the packet says “prime minced beef” that it is indeed a) high quality b) minced beef, and not a minced fat mixture with some texture derived from a cow or bull, and certainly not from another animal.
The moment a consumer can enter the code of a product in a computer or tablet – or read the bar code with a mobile phone or terminal in a store – and can get the exact provenance of the product and the entire handing and production chain from the stable to the kitchen(s), then it is up to the customer to buy or not.
Currently the labelling remains vague and full of symbols only the initiated can understand. It can say "beef from the European Union" which is vague about quality or precise origin, or “manufactured in the EU" while the raw material comes from elsewhere. I once bought snails that I thought were French but they came from Slovenia – that made the snails not by definition inferior but it is not what I expected.
The EFSA can play a role in that. After all, the Parma area is a prime example of a fight between high-quality local produce and a vast industry of almost real hams and cheeses. (Dutch pigs get transported to the Parma area, are fattened a bit and then slaughtered to be returned to the Netherlands, and elsewhere, as Parma ham. It is not Prosciutto di Parma, though.)
But local authorities and the food industry need to be involved and concerned.
The consumer also has a role to play, by demanding more information and openness and posting on social media any faults or possible frauds encountered.
The food industry, notwithstanding its very important role in the food chain of mankind, remains an industry; a business with a profit and loss account and a brand value that is fragile, as – rightly or wrongly, the investigation is continuing – Findus, Comigel and Spangherro have found out.
As has Tesco, which has promised to reimburse its clients. A PR face-saving exercise that does not remove the need for better checks and balances – mustard after the meal.