The recent scandal over the use of horsemeat in readymade meals that has shaken the entire European continent has revealed not only the complexity and opacity of our food supply chain, but also–and above all–the shortcomings of European food law.
Far from simply a one-off case of fraud, the scandal over horsemeat sold as beef in prepared foods has brought into the open the very real flaws in the European traceability system, the first victims of which are consumers. While origin labelling is mandatory for unprocessed foods such as fruit, vegetables and meat, no such requirement applies to processed foods despite the fact that the latter make up the bulk of Europeans’ shopping baskets. Hence, while the whole chickens on the French supermarket shelf may well be French, the meat used in nuggets and breaded chicken portions may well come from Brazil and the duck foie gras from Hungary.
While this loophole allows food manufacturers to use an array of misleading claims and images to give their products a false regional identity, the opacity as to the country of origin of meat used in processed foods also enables manufacturers to constantly switch suppliers in line with prices. The resultant confusion encourages traders to search for the lowest prices, regardless of the origin of the products, and therefore with no regard for food safety. All these factors, combined with cutbacks in the number of official controls, are responsible for the scandal over the use of horsemeat in ready-made meals.
The extraordinary meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, convened at the request of France in mid-February, was intended to usher in major changes in the origin labelling of processed foods. However, the apparent resolve of ministers when they arrived at the meeting soon gave way to unanimous cries of “fraud” as they left. And as for labelling, they continued to put their faith in a report due to be published by the European Commission–at the end of 2013. Do we really need a new scandal, and this time one over public health, to finally get things moving? How can we accept this delay in adopting a measure long awaited by consumers? Indeed, even before the horsemeat scandal hit the headlines, a survey by BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, in January 2013, showed that 60% of European consumers wanted to see origin labelling for all primary ingredients in processed food products.
In fact, the problem concerns all processed foods and not just meat-based products. What about the origin of dairy products used in processed milk and cereal-based foods? When we consider the risks posed by melamine–a highly toxic substance found in adulterated milk in Asia–and mycotoxins in certain batches of grain, it is abundantly clear that the country of origin must be indicated for all primary ingredients used in processed foodstuffs. The goal is not only to rebuild consumer trust, but also to simplify the declining number of inspections while at the same time ensuring food safety for Europeans.
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By Alain Bazot, President, UFC-Que Choisir
©OECD Yearbook 2013