On the 15th January the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) published a report stating that horse and pig DNA had been detected in beefburger products available from retail outlets in Ireland. The FSAI reported that whilst the presence of pig DNA had a plausible, although clearly still unacceptable, explanation –cross contamination in meat processing plants, there was no reasonable explanation for the presence of horsemeat.
Since then, the ‘horsemeat scandal’ has dominated our headlines with a steady stream of shocking revelations about the meat industry and its regulations, supply chains and possible links to the criminal underworld. The timeline of findings and events published by the UK Food Standards Agency demonstrates not only the extent and seriousness of the investigation, but the unfolding complexity and (to some) the surprising lack of transparency of the meat industry. What is clear, however, is that as the number of products testing positive for horse DNA rise, consumer confidence is plummeting and accusations of blame are flying.
Whilst Felicity Lawrence provides an ‘essential guide to the horsemeat scandal’ in The Guardian, explaining the involvement of Europe in our meat supply chains in particular, Reuters report on the “accusations, denials and threats to sue (that) reverberated round Europe on Friday as meat traders, food processors, retailers and governments all rejected blame”. However, as the pressure on Governments to act grows and claims of mis-labelling, negligence and fraud ricochet across Europe, Reuters describe how the accused believe they are being used as scapegoats for the politicians who are struggling to explain these breaches in food safety controls.
As the saga continues, and questions are raised about how this substantial quality control failure has been allowed to happen, the meat industry will find itself under increasing scrutiny. In a timely article for The Geographical Journal, Laura Devaney provides interesting insight to the operating logics, performance and impact of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (the institution that first reported the presence of horsemeat in beef products) since its formation 10 years ago. Using interviews with food industry stakeholders, Devaney highlights the “dynamic coexistence of both neoliberal and biosecurity agendas” in the work of the FSAI, which reflect the “new ways of securitising food… (that attempt to) protect society and allow it to prosper, but enable the deregulated free trade of safe food”. However, Devaney also discusses the conflict between the neoliberal agendas that promote self-regulation in the food industry and the biosecurity measures related to ensuring public health and food safety. It is this conflict that appears to be the key component in the current horsemeat scandal.
In these times of economic austerity the demand for cheap, mass-produced processed food has grown, it is therefore not a surprise that the complex nature of supply chains and the de-regulation of the food industry have been taken advantage of. As always, ‘lessons will be learned’ from this latest food scare but in the meantime, instead of pointing the finger of blame, regulations need to be tightened and consumer confidence regained.
Laura Devaney, 2013, Spaces of security, surveillance and food safety: interrogating perceptions of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s governing technologies, power and performance, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12001
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide, The Guardian, 15th February 2013
Horsemeat blame game ricochets across Europe, Reuters, 15th February 2013
Timeline on horse meat issue, The Food Standards Agency, accessed on 19th February 2013
FSAI Survey Finds Horse DNA in Some Beef Burger Products, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, accessed on 19th February 2013