"No artificial flavors or colors," the packaging of the frozen Spaghetti Bolognese prepared meal at British supermarket chain Tesco's promises. The additional ingredient causing such a furor right now, however, isn't even artificial. The misslabelling was even worse: Instead of the beef advertised, the product, which was sold under the chain's own Everyday Value label, contained a huge amount of horsemeat -- at least 60 percent. And all natural.
The horsemeat was first discovered in frozen hamburgers, but later in lasagne and more recently in the spaghetti product. In Britain, people are starting ask whether it is possible to eat frozen foods with a good conscience. For days now the ground horsemeat scandal has been leading the headlines as the main political issue in the country. On Tuesday, the House of Commons spent its second day in a row debating practices in European meat production that can get dicey.
And now the scandal is spreading. Traces of horsemeat have also since been discovered in other countries, including supermarkets in France and Sweden.
On Wednesday, officials at the consumer protection ministry in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia confirmed that the are investigating possible deliveries of incorrectly labelled frozen foods that may have contained horsemeat to Germany. The agency said it could only confirm whether the products actually contained horsemeat through DNA testing. So far, however, no clandestine horsemeat has been discovered in Germany, but several supermarket chains have taken the precautionary measure of removing a few food products from their shelves.
British Government Goes on Defensive
Nowhere has the outrage been as great as in Great Britain. Angered members of parliament have demanded a freeze on meat imports from the Continent. Euroskeptics in the country have also taken advantage of the opportunity to attack the EU as some kind of uncontrollable behemoth. "The EU single market is an invitation to fraud," commented Bernard Jenkin, a conservative member of parliament.
The British tabloid Sun has reported that a "grim Romanian slaughterhouse built with EU cash" has been one of the sources of the horsemeat at the center of the scandal. During a debate in parliament on Tuesday, Environment Secretary Owen Peterson, whose portfolio also includes agriculture and food, lambasted what he called a "criminal action" from abroad that led to a situation in which thousands of unwitting British people had eaten burgers or lasagne containing horsemeat. Over the weekend, he had already warned of an "international conspiracy."
But it appears that British firms have been caught conducting similarly deceptive practices. Officials at the government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) and police on Tuesday inspected horse slaughterhouses in Yorkshire County and a meat plant in Wales. Both companies are alleged to have used horsemeat in kebabs and burgers.
The British government is now on the defensive after ignoring the first case of deceptive labelling one month ago. In mid-January, horsemeat was discovered in frozen hamburger meat sold at discount supermarkets in Britain and Ireland including subsidiaries of Germany's Aldi and Lidl chains.
Tests on all Meat Products
Politicians and the authorities didn't respond in earnest until last week, when frozen lasagne comprised almost entirely of horsemeat was discovered in stores. On Monday, supermarket chain Tesco, the market leader, finally stated that its Everyday Value Spaghetti Bolognese had been made entirely with ground horsemeat.
Further cases are likely to be uncovered in the coming days, as well, because the FSA has ordered authenticity tests for all beef products. The first results from that testing are expected to be released on Friday. Once that is completed, the agency plans to test pork and chicken products in order to eliminate any remaining doubts.
On Tuesday, Paterson convened a second crisis meeting within four days with representatives of the food industry. And on Wednesday, EU agricultural ministers met in Brussels under pressure from Britain to discuss ways of better monitoring meat products.
It appears that improved monitoring is in fact needed. So far the British government assumes there are two isolated cases. Irish firm Silvercrest Foods supplied horsemeat in the hamburgers in question. And French producer Comigel provided ground meat with the lasagne and Spaghetti Bolognese.
A Complex Train Across Europe
Things start to get murky with the convoluted route taken from a slaughterhouse in Romania to supermarket shelves in Britain, a supply chain so complicated it has shocked many in the country. The Luxembourg-based Comigel subsidiary Tavola had ordered the ground meat for the lasagne from Spanghero, a subsidiary of France's Poujol. The parent company had acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader who had subcontracted the order to a Dutch firm that ultimately obtained the horsemeat from a slaughterhouse in Romania.
"We should not be so ignorant of our food chain -- a phrase that used to mean animals eating other animals, not dead ones going bloody Interrailing," lambasted Times of London columnist Hugo Rifkind. "The big shock should be that this is what our food supply looks like when it's going right, too." And the Anne McIntosh of the Conservative Party, who heads parliament's Agricultural Committee, said one has to wonder how fresh even frozen meat is when it is transported through so many countries.
The question that must now be addressed is the point where the meat got mislabelled in this long supply chain. So far, all the intermediaries involved are refusing to accept responsibility. The men who run the slaughterhouse, who happen to be the brothers of Romania's agriculture minister, have even presented receipts indicating the horsemeat had been correctly identified as such at the time they sold it. Seeking to contain possible damage to the country's image, Prime Minister Victor Ponta is warning against making his country the EU's scapegoat, as often happens.
Since the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in the 1990s, systems have been put in place that allow every kilo of meat in the EU to be tracked to its precise origin. But apparently that alone is not enough to stop acts of deception.
The British government believes that too much in the EU internal market is based on trust. Environment Secretary Paterson is now calling for regular spot checks in the future instead of relying on the information supplied on shipping documents. The prospect of large fines might also force the industry rethink its practices. Many of the companies affected in the scandal are now considering suing their suppliers.
For now, though, politicians and experts alike are offering some simple advice for Britain's consumers: Buy British. And Roger Kelsey, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, said that consumers have a choice: If they buy locally, they can trust what they are getting. It will just be more expensive.