Although the European Commission took several initiatives in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, which broke out one year ago, the EU consumer organisation (BEUC) says a similar food scandal could easily shake Europe again.
Large-scale fraud was one of the reasons behind the scandal last year which revealed that horsemeat had been sold as beef in readymade lasagne in the EU. The European Commission promised enhanced controls and penalty measures to prevent a repeat and ensure genuine food authenticity.
The Commission listed its commitments in an Action Plan, published in March 2013. The plan included increased testing of meat samples, more unannounced controls in meat processing plants and heavier fines for fraudsters as well as the establishment of a ‘Food Fraud Network’ and IT alert tool.
But a flagship proposal for origin labelling of fresh meat was recently rejected by a Parliament committee and the higher fines for fraudsters are still being debated between the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.
Apart from testing, the three main measures are either on hold or still being debated.
“The measures announced by the Commission to better shield consumers from food fraud have changed nothing on the ground. One year on, another ‘horsegate’ could easily make the headlines tomorrow," said Monique Goyens, the director general of BEUC, the European consumer organisation.
The consumer group calls for clearer labels as well as tougher controls and financial penalties on businesses that flout rules. Independent inspections should also remain the norm.
“Everyone, from industry to consumers, can gain from a stricter, clearer and more trustworthy food supply chain. It is the right time to act, so what is the EU waiting for?” Goyens asked.
The European Commission declined to comment.
The scandal of horsemeat in products labelled as beef spread across Europe in early 2013, prompting product withdrawals, consumer concerns and government investigations into the continent's complex food-processing chains.
One-fifth of adults said they had been buying less meat as a result of the discovery, according to a poll conducted by research company Consumer Intelligence published on 18 February.
The scandal broke when Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA), a British government body, gave food companies a week to test all their beef products upon discovery of the mislabeled products. The UK agency instructed consumers to return the Findus lasagnas and Tesco burgers as a precaution, but said there was no evidence to suggest that horsemeat itself was a food safety risk.