Monique Goyens is director general at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). She answered questions by EurActiv's Henriette Jacobsen.
As BEUC sees it, how could the horsemeat scandal happen in the first place in the EU?
The horsemeat scandal was possible because until a year ago national authorities only tended to react when someone claimed fraud perpetrated by a competitor rather than proactively investigated fraud. Due to the length and extent of the recession, some dishonest businesses can be tempted to cut corners and engage in fraud in order to increase profit. They run the risk of detection for sure, but a minor one. Until recently in France, you risked a heavier penalty for shoplifting a steak than selling horse meat advertised as beef to millions of consumers.
This is why we have been calling for financial penalties which are high enough to nip any fraudulent moves in the bud. The scandal also revealed to consumers how long and intricate the food chain is and gave a clue as to the numerous intermediary hands their meat goes through before it ends up on their plate. The only plus so far is that it has put fraud high on the EU agenda. We are now expecting measures to show on the ground.
The Commission took measures in the aftermath of the scandal. According to you, which ones were effective and which ones were not?
The Commission’s proposal in May 2013 on official controls of food came as a relative relief to us. It meant our requests for stricter sanctions were being heard and at least partly acted on by the Commission who proposed penalties which at least equal the fraudster’s projected economic gain. But member states are the ones ultimately responsible for setting fines. The financial crisis is pushing governments to slash their control budgets. If the EU legislation on Official Controls currently under revision is weakened and allows it, national authorities might hand over meat inspection responsibilities to slaughterhouse staff. How could their verdict be impartial? Controls must remain independent.
What could have the Commission done better?
The Commission would definitely have scored higher had it brought about mandatory origin labelling for meat in processed meals instead of piling up arguments against it. Not only has the Commission turned a blind eye to the 90% of consumers who want to know their meat’s journey, but it also came forward with very questionable estimates. Figures from our member organisations show the price for a pack of frozen lasagne would rise by a mere €0.015 if the origin of the beef was to be labelled. This is very far from the 15-50% price hikes countenanced in the Commission’s report.
When food makers are satisfied to only know from whom they bought the meat and to whom they sell it, there can be no surprise when they lose sight of what ends up in our lasagne or sausages. They should no longer be able to hide behind the ‘one up, one down’ traceability rule. If food businesses were compelled to label the originating country on their meat product, that would lead to a more transparent food supply chain, which in turn would make fraudsters' lives more arduous.
We have heard Commission spokespeople say that finding the source and set up preventive measures in two months’ time showed that the Commission did a great job. Do you agree?
The European Commission did react promptly to the scandal by launching an Action Plan. However, the only measure the Commission can tick off its ‘to-do list’ is the testing aspect, the results of which were published last April.
The good news is that in the future, sample tests could be required by the Commission, who until recently could only recommend member states carry out tests. They also committed to investigate country of origin labelling for processed meat, but we have seen industry being given more voice than consumers in this process. In terms of preventive measures, one year later nothing new actually prevents fraudsters from acting.
Do you think that it's now unlikely that we will see another scandal like the horsemeat scandal in the EU?
In December, meat from lab horses used to produce vaccines was traced in ready meals in France. Two weeks ago week, some horse meat traces were found in meat labelled as beef in the Netherlands.
What will happen tomorrow? We need words to be turned into action so that fraud can no longer occur. We should keep in mind that meat is not even in the top 10 food products most subject to fraud. Honey, olive oil and fish are only a few examples. Although the EU food system is the safest in the world, events like these have shown how fragile it is and how urgently it must be strengthened. The EU has the opportunity to strike now to restore the consumer trust which has been so heavily shaken in recent years.