As the horsemeat-dressed-as-beef scandal continues to rock Europe’s food industry, a number of organisations are calling on stricter European regulation, including an EU-wide horse passport register.
The Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) said creating a centralised record of horse passports would prevent the issuance of duplicate passports, thereby curbing the risk that horses banned from slaughter enter the food chain.
There is no evidence that eating horsemeat in itself poses any health risk, but veterinarians give horses drugs which are banned from human consumption.
“A main reason for deciding to exclude a horse from being consumed as food is that this allows the animal to be treated with a wider range of veterinary products”, the group said in a statement.
Following tests, the UK’s Food Standards Agency found traces of the drug phenylbutanzone, or bute, in eight dead horses, three of which may have entered the food chain in France.
The FVE said bute was banned for human consumption due to its “unacceptable side effects”.
In some EU countries the substance is authorised for use in horses under the condition that the treated horse will never be slaughtered for consumption.
Despite the revelation that only seven of 2,500 new tests on processed meats in the UK came out positive for horsemeat, a survey published on Monday by the Consumer Intelligence research company said the horsemeat scandal had shocked shoppers into buying less meat.
More than 65% of respondents said they trusted food labels less as a result of the scandal.
"Our findings show that this scandal has really hit consumers hard, be it through having to change their shopping habits or altering the fundamentals of their diet," David Black, a spokesman for Consumer Intelligence, said.
European agriculture ministers on Friday (15 February) decided to approve a DNA testing system to ensure pre-prepared dishes contain the same meat ingredients as those stated on the label. The European Commission will provide 75% of the funding for the plan, which will begin on 1 March throughout the EU. The Commission will make the results public.
Retailers under scrutiny
Amidst the ongoing scandal, the European Economic and Social Committee, an EU consultative body, on Monday (18 February) called for regulation preventing retailers from imposing overly strict obligations on suppliers.
Analysts have blamed the horsemeat scandal in part on the pressure large retailers place on suppliers to provide cheap meats. Faced with the economic crisis, some companies may have viewed horsemeat as an irresistible solution to cut costs since it currently trades at one sixth of the price of beef.
“The abusive and anti-competitive practices which large retailers impose on their food suppliers reflect a lack of any real contractual freedom. As a consequence, the inability of certain suppliers to meet the requirements of large retailers and the resulting economic difficulties are contributing to the decline of the agro-food sector in several countries”, the EESC said in a statement.
European Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner Tonio Borg said: "I welcome the swift approval by the Member States of the plan I tabled two days ago and I call on them to keep up the pressure in their efforts to identify a clear picture and a sequence of events. Consumers expect the EU, national authorities and all those involved in the food chain to give them all the reinsurance needed as regards what they have in their plates".
Richard Seeber, an Austrian MEP and public health and food safety spokesman for the European People's Party group in the European Parliament, said: "Labelling fraud must become a criminal offence in Europe. If it is treated as an administrative misdemeanour only, rules are pointless. I want clear, EU-wide harmonised country of origin labelling of processed meat throughout the whole trade and the processing line. All labelling rules need more and tougher controls. The best law does not help if it is not enforced".
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.