Horsemeat: Why did no one want to disclose full scale of scandal?
Following stints with Reuters and the Press Association, Martin Hickman joined The Independent as a news editor in 2001. He became the Consumer Affairs Correspondent in September 2005 and has run the paper's trenchant campaigns on packaging, bank charges and factory-farmed chicken. He writes on subjects as diverse as food, finance, energy and fashion. With Tom Watson, he is author of a new book on the phone hacking scandal, Dial M for Murdoch - News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.
Friday 08 February 2013
Since the start of the crisis last month, manufacturers, retailers and food officials have given every impression of not wanting to disclose the full unvarnished truth to the public about the contamination of the meat supply system.
Statements have been released late in the day, conveying inadequate and partial information, all expressed in the bland language of officialdom.
Perhaps mindful of creating an economically-damaging food scare, food safety officials and ministers have repeatedly stressed that the unlabelled horse is safe to eat – but, as the leading food scientist Duncan Campbell pointed out to The Independent last month: how can they be certain?
They didn’t know about the horsemeat for months and they still don’t know where it has come from.
From the very start, the public has been receiving news of the contamination well after the fact.
First, there was the delay over the release of the adulteration of budget burgers sold by supermarkets in Ireland and Britain.
Routine tests of burgers were first carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) in mid-November.
After suspicious results they were sent for re-testing in Germany, but only on 15 January – several days after the FSAI and the Irish government had been informed of the results – were they communicated to the public. The UK Food Standards Agency has been even worse in admitting the emerging scale of this scandal to the British public.
The FSA – set up in the wake of the BSE crisis – kept secret test results showing the banned drug ‘bute’ in meat from horses slaughtered in the UK last year until after a whistleblower had leaked them to a politician.
This week it waited a whole day before telling the public, in a brief press release slapped on its website but not sentout to journalists, that frozen beef in ready meals contained staggering levels of undeclared horse meat.
Even then it stated there was “more than 60 per cent” when the actual amount found, as it admitted later, ranged between 60 and 100 per cent.
But it has not been alone. Tesco and Aldi quietly swept their own-brand Comigel products from the shelves earlier this week rather than immediately informing the public – some of whom may have pulled those meals out of their home freezers and eaten them.
Typically statements have been released late at night. Aldi’s confirmation that ‘beef’ in its lasagnes and spaghetti Bolognese was in some cases wholly horse was put out at 6.30pm last night.
And politicians have been noticeably reluctant to engage with the public. The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson made a brief appearance on a rolling news channel last night, having been mysteriously absent from the airwaves during one of the biggest crises in British food for years.
By the day grows the suspicion that there has been a profound breach of the traceability systems constructed after BSE, and that the government, FSA officials and the food industry are loathe to communicate the scale of that failure to consumers.
‘Bute’ aside, the unlabelled horse may indeed be safe to eat. But that’s not to say that people wanted to eat it, nor, more importantly, that anyone in the food supply system was aware of the existence of what seems to have been a massive undetected fraud.
It was just the presence of an unknown substance – prions that caused BSE (and the ensuing complacency and cover-up) – that led to a collapse in confidence in British farming.
Judging by the events and attitudes of the last few weeks, the lessons have not been learnt.
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