(Photo source) 11th Feb (morning): The "fake beef" scandal which has spread to both producers and consumers in at least six countries - Ireland, Britain, Luxembourg, Poland, France and Sweden - seems to be developing into something more and more appalling. Not only has it raised serious questions on food safety, as well as the possibility of outright fraud in an industry with a history of grave, if episodic, lapses despite efforts at stricter regulation and reform, but I've just read that the "fake beef" could, in fact, be donkey...
I have to admit that I am revolted. Romanians will perhaps laugh, although as far as I know, horsemeat isn't eaten there either (at least, I've never seen it on a menu). Here's a little cultural awareness for those who find this funny, are posting all kinds of groan-worthy jokes/posters online or having a laugh at the silly articles circulating which I personally find offensive. Some say that Romanian abattoirs are being "blamed" by the UK as another excuse for negativity in the immigration issue. Piffle. The abattoirs which supplied the meat have been proven to be Romanian. Whether or not the fraud occurred in Romania is yet to be proven, but the jibing should stop now. Pardon me for pouring buckets of cold water on an excuse for a laugh, but to a Brit, this really is NOT funny. Not at all. I truly DO have a sense of humour. But NOT in this case. Why? Well here are several reasons:
1) Horsemeat is, on the whole, a taboo food in the UK (and throughout most anglophone countries and cultures) because of the role horses have played as companions and workers throughout our history, along with concerns about the ethics of the horse slaughter process. Horse and donkey meat was eaten in Britain, especially up north in Yorkshire, until the 1930s, and in times of post-war food shortage it surged in popularity in the United States where it was considered for use in hospitals for a time. During rationing in the UK's 1940s, it was eaten as an alternative to the unpopular whale meat available.
Today however, horses are NOT bred for their meat but as companions/pets or sporting animals ONLY. We don't even have a specific word for horsemeat in the English language as we do for pork (meat from a pig), beef (meat from a cow) or lamb (meat from a sheep).
Linguistically as well as culturally then, anglophones from the Queen downwards are sentimentally very attached to horses just as we are to our dogs and cats, rather than being in the same group as, say, pigs (though I truly love them too) or cattle - the very idea of eating them is, to most of us, repugnant. Personally, I'd rather chew off my own hand than eat horsemeat - and donkey, even more so. True, I have never lived a war, rationing or such lack of choice, and true also, I'd rather not eat meat at all, but you get my point, I hope.
2) It's not illegal to sell horsemeat in the UK, but it is illegal to sell food containing ingredients that aren't listed on the label. When something says "beef" then that's what the consumer expects to get. If it says "horse" or "donkey", ditto. But when it says "beef" on the label and you get horse or donkey, it is fraud, pure and simple. The consumer has a RIGHT to be assured by what he reads on the label. He does NOT expect to be lied to. And he has a right to CHOOSE what he eats. Where's the joke there, or am I missing something?
3) Religious observance: The products in question also included traces of pig DNA, which is considerably more shocking if you believe that a religious ban on eating pork carries more weight than a moral aversion to eating horse (although horsemeat is also forbidden under some religious dietary laws such as judaism, for example). See anything funny there? I don't.
4) The health risk: Of course, human beings can eat horse. That is not the issue. The problem is the unknown provenance of the meat. Brenda Proctor writes: "Farm animals in Britain are subject to strict controls: every move made by every animal from auction to farm, farm to auction, farm to farm, is recorded and controlled. There are laws regarding medication received by every animal, all recorded and banned from use for a period of time before slaughter. Veterinary inspections are mandatory at sales and abattoirs, and the latter have to reach high standards of hygiene and humane treatment. Fallen stock has to be removed from farms by licensed firms, and recorded so that the meat does not enter the human food chain. Herds are regularly checked to eliminate TB and other diseases. Thus everything possible is done to ensure that British farming can deliver safe meat to the public. When this has failed, it was because the rules were broken by criminals."
The FSA (who were FAR too slow to react IMHO) has said there is no evidence to suggest horsemeat is a food safety risk, but tests have been ordered to determine whether samples contain the analgesic drug phenylbutazone – otherwise known as bute – which is not considered safe for humans. And so, not only is one eating meat from an animal one didn't bargain for, but it may also contain chemicals/drugs harmful to one's health. Is that a reason to laugh? Nope, unless, of course, that's a side-effect of bute on humans.
Voilà, there are my four reasons why this should be treated seriously and carefully rather than with howlers all over the social network.
Meanwhile in Romania, officials have said one of the two Romanian abattoirs suspected of having provided horsemeat had been cleared of all suspicion: "I believe that, even though the investigation isn't finished, everything left the country properly and officially," Constantin Savu of Romania's food safety authority was quoted as saying by state news agency Agerpres on Sunday. "I find it hard to believe that such errors could exist."
Me, too. Owen Patterson, the UK Environment Minister said participants were determined to get to the bottom of a scandal which he stated was either caused by "gross incompetence or what I suspect is an international criminal conspiracy". The French and British governments have promised to punish those found responsible with sanctions, and rightly so. But I hope and pray that the abattoirs in Romania will NOT be at the origin of such gross breach of contract/negligence/fraud or whatever one chooses to call it, for it'll give 'the west' just one more reason to slander the country and her people. A Romanian food industry official pointed the finger of blame at the French importer, Findus, saying it was up to that company to verify the quality of the meat. Hardly the point, really, since the system relies on producers and importers to properly identify their meat and shelving blame can only be seen as either pathetic at best or an admission of guilt at worst....
(Photo source) These 'clever' pictures and jibes at British dietary preferences (and so on) on Facebook etc are not helpful. They have missed the point entirely, or are perhaps posted by people who are simply ignorant of these cultural and moral differences listed above that one really should make an effort to understand in cases such as this. Not everything can or should be counteracted with humour.
Having said that, the notoriously trashy British rag, The Sun, should be sued for its outrageous article published yesterday headlined, "Nabbed, stabbed and beaten... wild horses go in our beef" which stupidly states that Letea horses ended up as exported meat and there was no way of telling where it ended up. The journalist would obviously like us to reach a conclusion that these poor, abused horses ended up as lasagne. Funny? Not one bit. I didn't even crack a smile. Cheap, lousy journalism from Nick Parker who should be ashamed for writing such utterly debased rubbish. The Letea horses horror was too indescribable to be even mentioned in such an uneducated, crappy text.
Meanwhile, Findus has said it believes the contamination to be deliberate. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It remains to be seen. But in the meantime, please cut the hilarity. It is inappropriate and insensitive.
UPDATE: 11th February (evening): France and Britain have called for the "criminals" who disguised horsemeat as beef to be tracked down, as Romania angrily denied any responsibility for the 'Horsegate' scandal, as it has been called, spreading across Europe and blaming a French cover-up as the origin. Comigel saidit got its meat from another French firm, Spanghero, which said it was supplied by two abattoirs in Romania who allegedly passed horsemeat off as beef. Hmm... Round and round it seems to go.
According to Christian Fraser of the BBC, 'throughout the weekend, the Romanian government has been following the paper trail. At the request of France, it has investigated two abattoirs outside Bucharest - one that trades only in horsemeat and another that slaughters both cattle and horses.
The Minister of Agriculture, Daniel Constantin, said it had checked records all the way back to the beginning of 2012 and he was confident the certification was in order.
What was more, he said, the orders, which had been checked prior to export, had been for horse carcass, which was easily distinguishable from beef. Neither of the abattoirs, he said, had had a direct contract with the French processor that had made the allegations, and as far as he was concerned, the Romania investigation was over.
The Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, who has looked at the minister's report, said he was satisfied Romania had responded in the correct manner. "But am I angry? Yes, I am very angry," he said. "I can guarantee consumers in Britain and in France that Romania did everything responsibly. We cannot be held accountable," he added, "for the supply chain once the meat has left our borders." '
I don't quite understand that. Does this mean that the orders made to the Romanian abattoir were for horsemeat and never for beef? Is that what this says? If so, then indeed, the fraud happened beyond Romania's borders. But where?
Ponta said it was “quite clear” that the French company involved did not have any direct contract with Romanian companies and that, “for the sake of credibility Europe-wide, it should be established where the fraud occurred”.
“They delivered the meat to someone in Cyprus,” he told the Financial Times, suggesting the fault lay not with Romania’s abattoirs but with middlemen traders further along the supply chain.
Romanian authorities have so far refused to identify the slaughterhouses alleged by France to be involved, saying that since there is no evidence of wrongdoing they want to protect the businesses from inaccurate negative publicity.'
“It is in Romania’s interest for the place of the fraud to be found, those responsible to be identified and drastic penalties to be levied,” Mr Ponta declared earlier today. For once, I agree with him. I just pray that the 'place of the fraud' will NOT be Romania for they will be hit with such sanctions they won't know what the hell hit them...
With regards the outrageous article printed in The Sun yesterday and noted below, Romania's ambassador, Dr Ion Jinga, had THIS to say. Good for him. He also added that he believed the spat of anti-Romanian stories in the newspapers, centring on immigration and on meat imports could have unintended consequences. He could well be right.
In the meantime, Comigel and Spanghero have said they are innocent of anything dodgy and will sue suppliers who duped them. The plot thickens...
(Photo source) UPDATE 13th Feb: Well, things seem a bit clearer and along with that, UK and France will probably have to eat humble pie, grovel and apologise MOST sincerely to Romania for making them the scape goats when, actually, it is becoming more and more evident that Romania wasn't responsible (alone, at least if at all) for the "fake beef" scandal. AFP reported that Comigel had blamed French meat-processing company Spanghero, which blamed Romanian abattoirs where it said the meat was bought via traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands.
One of the Romanian abattoirs implicated, Carmolimp, issued a statement that its meat was properly labelled as horsemeat, adding that it had not exported beef in 2012. Therefore, it is evident that the order was made for horsemeat in the first place and NOT for beef. The 'client' was therefore at fault, NOT the Romanian abattoir. Carmolimp called attempts to blame it for the scandal "shameful," suggesting that only an incompetent French meat processor would mistake the horsemeat for beef. Romania has some 25 horsemeat abattoirs and exports horsemeat to Cyprus, France, Poland and the Netherlands, often through middlemen, officials said.
An initial investigation by French safety authorities determined that French company Poujol bought frozen meat from a Cypriot trader. That trader had received it from a Dutch food trader, and that Dutch company had received the meat from two Romanian slaughterhouses. How flamin' complicated... and plenty of opportunity to fiddle around with labels.
Up until now, the British ministers have claimed that the horsemeat scandal was a labelling issue from the 'continent', but today, the smell of a rat has moved much closer to home. A West Yorkshire plant was thought to have supplied horse carcasses to an Aberystwyth plant, which were then allegedly sold on as beef for kebabs and burgers. Peter Boddy Licensed Slaughterhouse, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, and Farmbox Meats Ltd, of Llandre near Aberystwyth, have had work suspended. I'm not quite sure where they tie in with Findus, but it shows that all is not well in the land of 'it's-coming-from-abroad-and-we-are-the-victims-of-organised-crime'. It could well still be proven to be organised crime, but the abattoirs of England's green and pleasant lands are now under scrutiny.
BBC reports: 'Mr Paterson said of the latest developments: "It's totally unacceptable if any business in the UK is defrauding the public by passing off horsemeat as beef. I expect the full force of the law to be brought down on anyone involved in this kind of activity." ' As do we all, I am sure. See HERE for a list of withdrawn products from supermarket shelves.
Patterson told MPs during a Commons debate earlier that "too much is taken on trust" when it comes to verifying meat supplies. How outrageous is that? I had a lesson this morning with a director of a huge supermarket chain here in Paris affected by the scandal. He was convinced that the problem lay not with abattoirs in Romania as France and GB had claimed (and stick that in your eye, The Sun newspaper and other rags making up guff to sell a story and stir up further national nastiness) but in the distribution chain from Romania's borders to the supermarket shelf. He explained that controls are lapse, follow-ups rarely carried out and added that all this didn't surprise him in the least.
French consumer safety authorities continue to report that companies from Romania, Cyprus and the Netherlands, as well as its own firms, were involved. There will be a big pow-wow in Brussels later today to discuss the scandal with counterparts in EU countries.
In the meantime, the revelations have unsettled consumers across Europe and revolted many meat eaters in the UK, where horsemeat is generally considered a no-no, although it is common in France (sold in speciality butchers), China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Italy.
January's discovery of pig DNA in beef products is of particular concern to Jews and Muslims, whose dietary laws forbid the consumption of pork products. Jewish dietary laws also ban the eating of horse meat.
At least now, though, authorities are no longer worried about health effects, but it has most certainly raised questions about producers misleading the public - and that is the issue here, rather than whether horsemeat is yummy or not.
More as it happens...