Horse-burger controversy a wake-up call for producers
Thankfully, at farm level, we don’t hear the word “rogue” nowadays. It was often used in previous decades to describe dealers who transported cattle in contravention of BSE regulations, those who moved sheep between farms during the foot and mouth outbreak, and so-called “van men” who sold illegal animal growth promoters to farmers.
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”.
Despite all the jocose comments about the horse meat controversy, the alarm bells are again ringing about what can happen in the food industry. Consumers nowadays are extremely discerning about their choice of food and what it contains, and the horse meat controversy has reopened the issue of trust between consumer and processor.
The Food Safety Authority says it remains to be seen if what happened with horse DNA was “carelessness, collusion or deliberate fraud”.
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.
But it is still disturbing that in the catering sector, according to the Food Safety Authority, a record number of enforcement orders were served last year on restaurants and food outlets for breaches of food safety laws. A total of 109 establishments were either closed or warned – up 30 per cent on 2011.
Why do consumers have to tolerate shoddy practices in the food trade? In the case of horse meat, we might soon find out as the Garda Commissioner is hoping for speedy answers. We’ll soon know if some people in the industry have deliberately tinkered with public trust. That trust was not easily won – it took a raft of legislation, along with huge and costly efforts by the government and Bord Bia to rebuild consumer confidence following disasters in the past.
Farmers fear that the cost of whatever extra testing is introduced to prevent irregularities will ultimately have to be borne by them. But inevitably the State will have to pick up some of the tab for the tightening of practices and any additional food promotions.
The food industry should heed the warning being sounded that any tampering with product will not be tolerated by consumers who will simply switch their choices as so many people did after previous food scares.
If the burger controversy ignites internationally with any new revelations, then long-term damage could be inflicted on one of the few Irish industries with solid growth targets for the future.
Damage limitation may have been successful this time, but any further breaches of confidence could be extremely costly.
It’s said that if a controversy lasts for more than two weekends, then the problem is really serious. At this stage, the horse meat issue has gone on for four weeks.
Joe O’Brien is a former RTÉ agriculture correspondent