Full origin labelling right through food chain is vital
Blocks of meat being dumped at French meat processor Spangheros factory in near Toulouse yesterday
OPINION:On Thursday a French government investigation concluded that Spanghero, a French meat processing company, knew that meat labelled as beef – which it had sourced from Romania – was horse meat, yet it sold it as beef.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has done the consumer a great service by detecting this major scam in the first place, but the French produced evidence of what many in Ireland have suspected – wholesale fraudulent adulteration of particular foods. Evidence may yet be produced in Ireland of similar adulteration.
In Victorian England, food was frequently deliberately adulterated. Sawdust and sand were often used to lengthen the “shelf-life” of certain foodstuffs, but the more dangerous adulterants were copper, lead, mercury and even arsenic used as attempted colouring agents.
In response, the Sale of Food Drugs Act, 1875, stipulated for the first time that “no person shall sell to the prejudice of the purchaser any article or food or anything which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded by such purchaser”.
Those words have a resonance today for many consumers who feel cheated that they have been buying beef products that actually contained horse meat. How could this have happened when they are told that the food industry is highly regulated, with traceability systems from “farm to fork”?
In the EU, food regulations were introduced to re-establish consumer confidence in food safety after the BSE and Belgian dioxin crises in the late 1990s.
The pre-BSE approach to food law was articulated in the famous European Court of Justice case, Cassis de Dijon. According to this case, harmonised rules were to be adopted at EU level only when they were justified with regard to consumer protection or fair trade.
This approach resulted in harmonised EU provisions for consumer information, food labelling and food hygiene. In the absence of EU law on a given issue, the principle of mutual recognition applied, ie a product such as a foodstuff legally produced and marketed in one member state must be marketable in all other member states. The principle is a fundamental tenet of the EU internal market.
The current crisis highlights two consumer protection issues – the misleading labelling of beef products and the emerging concern about the possibility of the veterinary painkiller phenylbutazone, (known as bute and used extensively for horses) entering the food chain.
The two issues reflect the two sets of tests to be completed by member states agreed by the European Commission and agriculture ministers on Wednesday in Brussels. The labelling matter is a consumer protection issue, while the bute issue relates to food safety and public health.
The use of horse meat as a replacement for beef in meat products while continuing to label the product as beef, breaks the main principle of the EU food labelling directive 2000/13, which states that labelling must not: “Be such as could mislead the purchaser to a material degree, particularly as to the characteristics of the foodstuff and, in particular as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, origin or provenance, method of manufacture or production.