European Commission abdicates responsibility for horse meat scandal


ANALYSIS:EU believes it is up to member states to enforce food labelling regulations

EU commissioner Tonio Borg addressed reporters yesterday at lunchtime in Brussels for the first time since the horse meat scandal erupted last month.

Last night, he announced proposals to tackle the growing crisis, but as commissioner responsible for health and consumer policy, he has been noticeably absent over the last month.

Earlier yesterday, Borg reiterated the commission’s official position. There is no evidence the horse meat crisis is a health issue, hence the commission’s rapid alert system regarding food safety was not triggered. He also pointed out that there were EU regulations in place regarding labelling, but it was up to member states to enforce them. Borg argued that Europe does not have an “army of inspectors” at its disposal, and investment in a “supranational body of enforcement agents” was not an option.

Massive failures

While this may well be the case, the abdication of responsibility by the European Commission for the massive failures in the European food labelling system that have been revealed by the horse meat crisis, is remarkable.

European consumers want answers. The absence of a water-tight EU food labelling system has shocked consumers, particularly from an institution that is usually criticised for excessive bureaucracy and red tape. As the horse meat controversy spreads throughout the EU, a gap between the public and national governments’ mounting concern and the delayed response from the commission is evident.

Borg also cautioned countries against moving to ban imports, noting that even if bans were introduced in the event of a food safety issue, any bans would be temporary.

“Let no one use this incident in order to undermine one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, the free movement of goods, including meat products throughout the European Union.”

The impression was of an institution more concerned with protecting the single market than getting to the bottom of what now appears to be widespread fraud in the European food chain.

While Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney commended the commission’s response to the crisis yesterday, the fact that it was left to an individual member state to call a meeting of EU ministers was notable.

Yesterday’s meeting of EU ministers signalled the first step towards initiating a Europe-wide response to the food labelling issue.

Ironically, the rapid escalation of the horse meat crisis coincided with yesterday’s announcement of the opening of landmark trade discussions between the US and the EU.

Agriculture is likely to be one of the most contentious issues in the free trade talks. As the gaps in the European food chain become more apparent, Europe’s sniffiness about US beef may seem a little supercilious.

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