Sunday, 24 February 2013

Horsing around with food labels

And the specials today are...
(credit: mpmedia)
If you listen to the news in the UK, you can't have helped hearing about the "horse burger" scandal. The story is that horse meat was found in frozen beef burgers on sale at a major UK supermarket. There has been a major reaction from the press, but I think the details bear a closer look.

In many parts of Europe, particularly in Italy and the baltics, horse meat is a common food and many locals wouldn't think twice about eating it. As an example, the photo next to this article is of the "daily specials" menu from a restaurant in Verona, Italy. Not only is there a horse meat dish, but do you see that dish with donkey sauce? Yep, that's exactly what you think it is. And this restaurant menu is fairly common.

I didn't go inside the restaurant, by the way.

There are all kinds of cultural traditions and history that cause us to eat some kinds of meat but not others. This changes as you go around the world. If you took those supermarket "beef" burgers to (say) Northern Italy or Slovenia, and labelled them correctly as horse burgers, they'd be snapped up by shoppers.

There have been previous cases of horse meat turning up unannounced in UK food, as in this case from 2003 (opens in new window) where it was found in cooked meats.

The more worrying story today, similar to 2003, is that horse meat found its way into a product labelled as something else, and no-one really knows how or why yet. Many food producers are proud that they can trace the ingredients for their products right back to where they came from. Computerisation and automated machinery make this process automatic. But it seems that someone can still put the wrong label on a box, or tamper with the computer system, and others further along the supply chain won't always check. Of course, we don't know that's what happened with the frozen burgers, but that's where I'd put my money.

A recent TV news report showed that the horse meat came from Romania, and was clearly identifiable as horse meat when it left. It was then traded through at least 3 other companies, each in a different country, and somewhere along the way it was put through a mincer and mixed with beef mince. From that point, even a trained eye might have difficulty spotting something amiss. Horse meat is a fraction of the price of beef, so replacing one with the other could be very profitable.

There are checks that can be done with food. There should be a paper trail from a specific animal all the way to the batch of burgers or lasagnes it ended up in. And with horse meat, we can at least do DNA tests to detect its' presence - although if the paper trail has been messed up, you may still not be able to know how a horse ended up in a beef burger, only that it has.

But none of this matters to the average person until something scandalous happens. We might mutter about not really knowing what's in cheap food, but we buy it anyway. We're conditioned to look at the packaging that food comes in, and the price we have to pay at the till. We're not very good at looking at what's in our food or where it comes from. Even when we do, we probably don't know all the labelling tricks - like the fact that a ready meal labelled "made in UK" can contain meat from Romania. We trust brand names and we trust supermarkets, even though they're often faceless corporations. We don't check what they're doing until something goes wrong. Then we realise that we've actually lost any reliable way of checking for ourselves, and have to rely on government authorities to hold an investigation.

Some supermarkets and manufacturers are better than others. As a slightly different example, a bag of salted peanuts I recently bought was labelled "Made in UK - peanuts from Nicaragua". Another supermarket's peanuts just said "Packed in UK". Both meet legal requirements, and are probably exactly the same peanuts from the same supplier.

A relative of mine has escaped all the meat labelling problems. She buys meat from a local farm shop, where the farmer knows where the meat came from - because either his family or a nearby farmer reared the animals themselves. And the price is roughly the same as the supermarkets because she buys in bulk direct from the farmer (she freezes what she can't use straight away).

What we do know - and the thing to take comfort in - is that horse meat is safe to eat, as evidenced by the tens of thousands (or more probably millions) of people who eat it every day in other countries. But if one good thing comes out of this "crisis" (as some branches of the media call it), I hope that food labelling becomes more honest and transparent.

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