It was bad enough when horse meat allegedly from Poland via Ireland, and then Romania via France, was found contaminating British beef products. Cue much concern over elaborate supply chains, dubious foreign abattoirs and the ineptitude of the Food Standards Agency in policing the quality – or even variety – of the processed meat entering the UK. How much worse, however, now that it appears that horse meat is slipping illicitly into the food chain in Britain, too.
For the consumer, of course, the distinction means little. The outcome – food that is not what it claims to be – is the same regardless of where the deception took place. What the latest development does do, however, is expose a second gaping hole in the oversight of the meat industry. Not only has the watchdog failed as regards imported meat products; it has done no better at home. Andrew Rhodes, the FSA’s director of operations, is full of bluster about “relentless” investigations until there is “nothing left to find”. But no amount of assiduity now can exempt the watchdog from responsibility for the situation arising in the first place.
Nor are we even close to establishing the scale of the problem. The Government has tried to dampen fears that “bute”, a veterinary drug, has entered human food from illegitimate horse carcasses. But with so little certainty to the extent of equine contamination, how long it has been going on, or where the slaughtered beasts have come from, such assurances are hardly more than a hope. Meanwhile, Waitrose’s discovery of pork in its beef meatballs suggests the problem could be more widespread still.
There can be no excuses. Neither pressure from cash-strapped consumers, nor the ban on ultra-low quality “desinewed” meat, nor public spending cuts can reasonably be blamed for either the fraud or the regulator’s failure to expose it. Once the immediate crisis is over, there will be sharp questions for the FSA to answer. At the very least, regular, random checks on all meat must be instituted forthwith.