The poultry industry is rightly proud of producing high-quality protein at a low cost. The latter half of this statement, however, has now been associated with some bad press. 

The reason that horse meat has been used to fill out beef products is simply down to price – it’s much cheaper. Just as horse meat is cheaper than beef, so is chicken meat, and European tests have now revealed that horse is not the only meat that has been used as a beef substitute; chicken has also been found where it shouldn't be. 

At least in the case of chicken, there are no cultural taboos around its consumption. Nevertheless, consumers have been deceived into purchasing something that they thought was something else. And even if the poultry industry has been the innocent victim of someone else’s poor behavior, in the mind of the consumer, there is still an association. 

 

Knives being sharpened

The number of countries now affected by the horse scandal has grown too long to list, and horse meat – and other undeclared meat – has now been found in the goods of hotel and catering suppliers, hospital caterers and products destined for school meals, as well as in supermarket stock.

I hear more and more people saying they want to become vegetarian, or at least, they want to avoid anything “processed.” I assume that they don’t include cooking and chewing under the label of processing, however, as the problem is not processing per se; the problem is unscrupulous processing. The damage to the meat processing industry resulting from this scandal is continuing to deepen and widen on a daily basis. 

The finger-pointing and the testing continue. Cyprus, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland Romania, and the UK – the spotlight of suspicion has fallen on each one over the last couple of weeks. Yet still, nothing is really clear. Retailers are blaming processors, others are blaming local councils or food standards agencies, while others put the blame on the age of austerity, both in terms of the inclusion of cheap meat and for the failure to conduct tests. Nobody has yet to put their hand up and say: “Sorry, it was me!”

We can only hope that it is only a matter of time before a line is drawn under all of this, and less-than-honest players are weeded out. 

Better coordination may help in this regard. Evidence collected by the UK police force and the UK’s Food Standards Agency has been handed over to the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol, while the European Commission and EU Member States have agreed to start an immediate testing program to check for horse DNA in beef products and for phenylbutazone. The decision was taken at an extraordinary meeting of the EU’s standing committee on the food chain and animal health in mid-February and will last for a month.

Scale and substance

Mid-February also saw the UK Food Standards Agency publish a breakdown of 2,501 results from its latest round of testing. 2,472 of these, or almost 99 percent, were negative for the presence of horse DNA at or above the level of 1 percent. 29 samples, relating to seven products, were positive for the presence of undeclared horse meat at or above the level of 1 percent. At least 950 tests are still in progress. 

The results may look pretty good, but do not think that the story ends there. The UK’s Food Standards Agency has said that once the horse/beef investigations are over, other meats such as pork and chicken will have to be tested for cross contamination. The wider food chain will be under the spotlight. 

According to the UK newspaper Daily Telegraph, there have been reports of chicken being injected with waste from the beef and pork industries to inflate breasts in order to fetch a higher price. Who knows what the origin of this claim are, but it is going to do nothing to boost consumer confidence.

 

Oh what tangled webs we weave

The extent of the problem suggests that it is not simply a case of poor plant hygiene. Although none of the products that contained horse meat were sold with packaging printed: "Does not contain horse meat," the producers or those products or the suppliers of the ingredients have been lying. Lying by omission is still lying, and deceit destroys trust. We all need confidence in what we are eating and to be able to trust those supplying it.

There are a lot more tests on the horizon, but they will only reveal the extent of the contamination. Next will come the process of untangling the complicated structure that is the modern food system. How much of the current story is based on lies of omission and how much on lies of commission remains to be seen. And perhaps just as worrying when it comes to really finding out what has happened, some governments now stand accused of becoming aware of the problem at least 12 months ago and of turning a blind eye. 

It may be a little naïve to hope, but couldn’t someone somewhere put their hand up and say, “Sorry, it was me!”? The truth usually outs in the end, and a lot of damage and misery could be avoided by it coming out sooner rather than later.