From a purely technical point of view, it would be easy to use bar codes on each individual package to disclose the origin of the ingredients. But this is primarily opposed by manufacturers who purchase their ingredients here and there, according to the season, price and demand. They would have to list the latest information on their packaging. What's more, any mention of Romanian horsemeat would hardly help sales.
German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner has done little to push through such a labeling system. Last week, she condemned the mixing of horsemeat with beef as a "shocking mess" and demanded "the greatest possible transparency" for consumers. She also assured the public that she supported EU efforts to improve clarity. But it was an entirely different story nearly two years ago: "I don't think that exact, detailed labeling of origin is feasible," she said at the annual conference of the German Federation of Food Law and Food Science (BLL), a lobbying group for the food industry. Aigner added that there was currently no "real possibility" of introducing such an obligation.
It's interesting to note how eagerly politicians are looking everywhere -- except at themselves -- for someone to blame for the current labeling scam. "If anyone here has reacted quickly and purposefully, it's us," says the CEO of one of the affected retail chains. After the initial evidence surfaced, he says, in addition to pulling all suspected products from the shelves and ordering laboratory tests, the retailer immediately informed the authorities. "Now everyone is acting as if we were against transparency, but that's just to divert attention from their own shortcomings," says the manager.
The chronology of events effectively shows once again how difficult it is in Germany to appropriately react to suspected cases. After the first cases surfaced in Britain, Aigner's ministry sent a memo on Jan. 30 to the authorities responsible for food inspections at the state level. With "Non-declared horsemeat in hamburgers" as the subject line, the e-mail suggested that the authorities "more closely monitor whether such products were also circulating in Germany." There were no reactions. It wasn't until the EU's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) sent a message to Germany on Feb. 12 that government inspectors went into action. By then, many of the lasagna portions had long since been consumed.
An additional weakness of the German warning system is that, as long as no documented health risks exist, government agencies are not allowed to mention product names or manufacturers.
"The legal incentive system doesn't work," says Matthias Wolfschmidt from the consumer organization Foodwatch. Currently, there is nothing to motivate retailers to sort out house brands with false declarations, he argues, because the sector can only be held civilly liable for ridiculously small amounts of money, but is not criminally liable. "Big fines would prevent widespread fraud such as this," he contends.
There is currently not much to deter unscrupulous businesses. A southern German meat retailer, who sold döner kebab ingredients in the so-called rotten meat scandal in 2005, was sentenced to three years in prison -- but he didn't have to forfeit his profits from selling the re-labeled meat.
REPORTED BY SUSANNE AMANN, HUBERT GUDE, NILS KLAWITTER, UDO LUDWIG, FIDELIUS SCHMID, HELENE ZUBER