Op-ed developed for the Master in Public Relations / Corporate Communications program at Georgetown University.
A horsemeat scandal is spreading across Europe after horsemeat falsely labeled as beef has been discovered since last month in several European countries. The scandal has unveiled serious lapses in quality control on the food supply chain across the E.U. trading bloc, as the type and origin of the processed meat cannot be assured. The European Commission must investigate the whole scope of the problem and better regulate the food industry in order to restore the confidence of customers.
Consumers of meat in Europe are worried with results of tests conducted by European food authorities showing that several products, labeled as beef, actually contained horse and pig DNA. The adulterated beef products, such as frozen burgers, meatballs, and other frozen meals, were sold in major supermarkets in Europe, and served in restaurants, schools and hospitals. Many renowned companies in Europe were found to be involved in the issue, including IKEA, Taco Bell, Burger King and Nestle. Food authority agencies say that horsemeat is not a risk to human health, and it is actually sold in many European countries – some even say it is a delicacy. But eating horsemeat is not a unanimous taste, and sales of beef burgers in England are down by 46 percent, since the beginning of the scandal.
Loose labeling regulations in the E.U. trading bloc, and contamination in the food supply chain presumably caused this fraudulent labeling in beef products. Currently, according to Brussels’ rules, country of origin and slaughter must be included on labels for fresh and frozen beef in Europe, but not to other meats and ingredients in processed food. Giant lumps of anonymous frozen meat, used to prepare the ready meals, are sold in bulk as commodities in the world market. Some of that meat was being labeled as beef, when they actually contained traces of horse and pig DNA. The food supply chain in Europe has so many layers that it is now a big challenge to pinpoint where is the contaminated beef coming from.
The horsemeat crisis has raised awareness of consumers to know what is in the food they are buying. Some consumers are already changing their meat consumption habits. In the U.K., a market research from firm Kantar Worldpanel, released last week, shows that sales of frozen beef burgers are down 46 percent and ready meals sales are down by 13 percent. At the same time, there was an increase in the sales of fresh and organic meat, and meat free dishes.
Major European Governments have launched surveys of food authenticity in processed meat products, and the European Commission is also doing random testing of food products. The government wants to find out how widely spread are these fraudulent labeling scams, however it must do more than that. Customers need to know that those involved in fraudulent labeling were punished, and also that tougher laws are implemented to guarantee the authenticity of the food they are buying.