Stephen Jardine: Horse meat scandal hasn’t changed much

Horse meat made it's way into ready meals sold by major retailers. Picture: Greg Macvean

Horse meat made it's way into ready meals sold by major retailers. Picture: Greg Macvean

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Exactly three years ago, the food chain changed forever.

In January 2013, Irish food inspectors revealed they’d found horse meat in beefburgers sold in major UK supermarkets.

Further inquiries revealed horse meat had also made it’s way into ready meals sold by major retailers. As the weeks rolled on Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Iceland, Findus and Whitbread all ended up being implicated in the scandal.

It wasn’t a food safety issue. As some were keen to point out, horse meat is edible and on the menu in other food cultures. But it was an issue of food fraud. If we don’t know what we’re being sold, how can we be sure it is safe?

A government investigation at the time was damning. It blamed criminal fraud in the food chain which saw beef being switched for cheap horse meat being introduced to keep production costs down. Much of this had taken place in eastern Europe but the convoluted meat trading process made it easy to hide.

MPs said the scale of contamination in the supermarket meat supply chain was “breathtaking” and consumers had been “cynically and systematically duped”.

Selling the public horse meat labelled as beef is criminal fraud but despite that, no-one in this country has gone to jail. Some arrests were made but only a Dutch meat trader is so far behind bars.

So if no-one has been punished, three years on how do we know lessons have been learned and the same problems don’t still exist?

On the positive side, there is now much greater transparency. Pre horse meat, few people knew that the food chain had been infiltrated by criminal gangs intent on fraud. Now proper monitoring is in place and organisations like the Food Standards Agency has set up specialist Food Crime Units.

On top of that, the supermarkets have also moved to introduce their own safeguards. The suspicion was some major retailers simply weren’t asking the right questions because their main focus was maintaining low prices.

The horse meat scandal rocked them out of that complacency. If the supermarkets were in any doubt about the importance the public attach to trust and provenance, the balance sheets tell the story. Tesco has gone from being Britain’s biggest and fastest growing retailer to instead reporting the worst results in its 96-year history with pre-tax losses of £6.4 billion in its last financial year.

And that was despite abject, grovelling apologies over Horsegate in adverts in the national press where Tesco promised “Seriously. This is it. We are changing.”

However one thing has not changed. Three years on from the initial scandal, many consumers have fallen back into turning a blind eye to how food can be produced cheaply.

After being decimated by the supermarket tsunami, butchers, bakers and fishmongers are now recovering because some shoppers simply don’t trust what the retailers have to offer. But many others prefer not to think too hard about how ten sausages can cost a pound or a burger can be sold for less than 10p.

Until we face the hard facts about what proper food costs, the door will always be open for the fraudsters and criminals.

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