The European Union's food safety polices are aimed an ensuring security "from farm to fork," but this week's horsemeat scandal in five EU countries, including Germany, has many calling for stricter standards. Food investigators have found horsemeat falsely labeled as beef in one product after another. The scandal has prompted many to question how safe a supply chain is that is so convoluted and moves across so many borders.
With countries across the EU investigating, however, clearer details are beginning to emerge. On Thursday, the French government pinpointed the meat supply firm Spanghero as the company that processed horsemeat and then passed it along to food manufacturers as ground beef.
French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon said Thursday that Spanghero had consciously sold the horsemeat as beef, and the government in Paris has suspended the company's license for processing meat. "The investigation shows that Spanghero knew that the meat labeled as beef could be horse," Hamon told reporters. "There was a strong suspicion."
The fraud appears to have manifested itself across Europe. This week, supermarkets in the United Kingdom, France and Germany have removed frozen lasagne and other prepared meals supplied by Comigel from their stores after some products were found to contain 100 percent horsemeat but had been labeled as beef. Comigel had originally ordered ground beef from Spanghero. Many are now asking whether controls at the EU and national levels are sufficient for adequately monitoring the massive cross-border trade that occurs daily in Europe.
'Unprecedented Consumer Fraud'
Safety concerns also arose after British public health authorities warned that horsemeat containing trace amounts of the equine painkiller phenylbutazone may have entered into the food chain in France.
German Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner is calling the horsemeat developments a "so far unprecedented case of consumer fraud," adding that suspicions are solidifying that a crime was likely committed. She also called for comprehensive testing of all meat products in Europe.
"We have to increase the controls across Europe and determine in which land and at which point the break in the supply chain occurred," Aigner told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We need clarity over whether the current scandal was an isolated incident or just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, we also need much broader screening in all EU member states to test meat products. The European Commission also supports this monitoring program."
Following the BSE outbreak in the 1990s, the EU implemented strict controls on beef that tracks cattle from birth to the slaughterhouse to the supermarket. But Aigner noted that the ability to detect the origin of cattle cannot protect from false labeling of products as beef. That can only be addressed through strict testing. Rules for meat that is processed for use in other products, like frozen lasagne, however, are far more lenient. Aigner urged the EU to move quickly to implement stricter regulations.
Meanwhile, Spanghero isn't the only firm that has come under scrutiny in the food scandal. The company had brokered the meat through the Dutch firm Draap, which purchased it from slaughterhouses in Romania. Spanghero officials have denied any wrongdoing, but they are still a main focus of French investigators.
The murky path of the horsemeat from the Romanian abattoirs to the frozen food aisles of Europe's supermarkets has shocked consumers. Initially, suspicions had been directed at the Romanian businesses, but they have since defended themselves, saying that had correctly labeled what they sold as horsemeat.
Investigators now believe a criminal network with links to the Netherlands and France may be responsible. But a lawyer representing the Dutch company also at the center of the scandal claims that Draap correctly labeled the meat and that everything had been sold as horse.
In Brussels, EU member states are expected to vote on a proposal by the European Commission to conduct DNA testing on meat products across the bloc to determine how widespread the horsemeat problem is. Afterwards, Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, is expected to work together with national controllers in order to identify and crack down on any possible criminal networks.
As the multinational investigation into the meat industry continues, it is likely that additional cases of fraud will be uncovered. After all, the Spanghero-Draap connection behind the horse lasagne isn't the only alleged cartel accused of committing fraud in Europe. The current scandal was sparked in January when frozen hamburgers were discovered in Britain and Ireland containing horsemeat that originated from the Irish firm Silvercrest Foods. In Britain, the government's Food Standards Agency has already investigated a number of companies and arrested its first suspects.
In Germany, where it was first confirmed in recent days that deceptively labeled products containing horsemeat have been sold in supermarkets, the editorial pages are also heavy with coverage of the scandal. Many op-eds are highly critical of consumer purchasing practices, noting that Germany's obsession with cheap groceries is part of the problem.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Horsemeat is not in itself harmful. But when it's called beef and hidden in lasagna, the outcry is loud. In this case the story is not simply considered a betrayal that prosecutors handle. Instead it grows into a food scandal that even becomes a topic for EU agriculture ministers. There is a simple reason for that: More and more people are losing trust in their nutrition. They have the feeling that they can't control what they eat."
"That's why it is no wonder that horsemeat mixed into groceries is causing fear at home. Many people say that 'one just doesn't know anymore what one is eating.' And to be sure, the next scandal is definitely coming. Even though horsemeat tests are definitely going to become more stringent, another scandal will emerge."
"The good news is that with every scandal, the world is growing safer. Groceries have become increasingly healthy in the last decades. Today food scandals lead to outrage, but they rarely cause human deaths. Time and again new checks are put in place."
Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Certainly, presenting and selling horsemeat as beef is pure fraud -- and the perpetrators are the first to bear the blame. But European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy Tonio Borg is making things too easy by pushing responsibility away from himself and his office and saying that it's about criminal behavior, and that member states are responsible for the regulation of companies anyway."
"Labeling food is actually very much the EU's job. Everything is centrally regulated through Brussels. Consumer protection advocates have been demanding for years that the origin of meat be noted on packaging. ... While this wouldn't prevent fraud, consumers would at least have the option of consuming meat from countries they trust. ... The European commissioner now wants to examine before the end of the year whether it makes sense to extend the labeling requirements. The fact that new hidden horsemeat cases are sprouting up almost hourly in more member states ought to be incentive enough."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"We have long known that cheap meat is produced through intensive livestock farms. A chicken for €3.29 ($4.40) costs so little because it spends its 30-day life unable to move and standing in its own feces. You don't have to be a vegetarian to find that barbaric. But that's the fact of everyday life in mass meat production -- because these products find buyers. And those consumers are in no way exclusively those who cannot afford to purchase higher quality groceries. … There's more to food than just ingestion. Nutrition is ritual, culture and practice. But sometimes practices can become sinful."
"When a scandal disturbs the peace -- say, traces of dioxin are found in eggs, a mad cow is found or horsemeat is discovered in lasagne, then things get better for a few days. People are horrified, there's a passionate outcry and people change their consumption patterns for a short time, only to go right back to their old ways as soon as the coverage dies down. … It's strange. People can revolutionize agriculture. They can genetically modify their food and stuff it full of antiobiotics. But they can't make the supply chain of meat identifiable? Complaints seem hypocritical without the admission that there isn't enough societal pressure to change."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"When people in Europe think of horses today, they think of beautiful animals on organic farm pastures. Lasagne is the last thing on their minds. It's a disgrace, says Consumer Minister Aigner fittingly, that horsemeat was mixed into prepared meals. Horses are an issue where Europe is divided. The fact of the matter is that horse is still a food item in parts of Europe where Latin languages are spoken. In addition to showing the industry's criminal energy, the fact that Romanian horsemeat has been found in various prepared meals also highlights in a bizarre way a two-speed Europe. In one, people speak of organic meat and reducing meat consumption as well as the decentralization and qualification of meat and vegetable production, although the majority continue to enjoy eating cheap products, thus provoking scandals like this. In the other, lean and tasty horsemeat is consider to be a delicacy. It would be difficult to find a French supermarket that doesn't include horse or donkey sausage. The same applies to Switzerland and Italy."
"Most don't want to see or listen to the truth. The crucial question of our time is how we, as omnivores, deal with our foodstuffs. Horses are but the latest chapter."