Tainted grub in Europe's food bowl

In demand … a horse meat specialist in Paris. Sales in France soared after the scandal broke.
In demand … a horse meat specialist in Paris. Sales in France soared after the scandal broke.

Horse meat looks a lot like beef. It tastes a lot like beef, slightly sweeter and leaner, a bit chewier. It's also arguably better for you and, in Europe, a lot cheaper.

Trouble is, a lot of people just don't want to eat Dobbin. And that's why ''horsemeatgate'' is Europe's biggest crisis since the financial one.

Late last year the Food Safety Authority of Ireland received a new high-tech DNA testing system. It decided to try it on a ''targeted study of a number of burger products'', sampling the authenticity of products on supermarket shelves.

The results were stunning. Of 27 beefburgers analysed, 10 tested positive for horse DNA - from two different processing plants. Horse DNA was also in batches of raw ingredients, some imported from continental Europe.

The results were published on January 15. As the news exploded into the media, supermarket shelves were cleared. The burgers had been sold in big chains such as Tesco and Aldi. Burger King binned thousands of Whoppers from a tainted supplier.

Professor Alan Reilly, the chief executive of the Ireland's food authority, assured people there was no health risk (later, some horse-tainted products were found to have traces of anti-inflammatory drug bute, but not at a level believed dangerous to humans). However, he said, "It is not in our culture to eat horsemeat and, therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger."

The scandal snowballed. More tests in Ireland revealed more horsey products. In Britain, the Food Standards Agency began its own DNA survey. The results revealed that a ''beef lasagne'' made by food processing giant Findus and sold in supermarkets in Britain contained more horse than beef.

Police were brought in, in Britain and on the continent, "after the evidence of the significant amount of horse meat in burgers and lasagne points to either gross negligence or deliberate contamination of the food chain", the agency said. More tests revealed more horse. Aldi took beef lasagne and a spaghetti bolognese out of its freezers after tests found 30 to 100 per cent horse meat in samples. Tesco found horse meat in its own spag bol.

The media were full of disgruntled consumers, vox-popped to vent their disgust. Online polls revealed millions were cutting down their meat intake. Local butchers were the only ones grinning, as queues went out the door.

For a while, the continent indulged in more than a little schadenfreude. In Austria you can buy horse meat at hot dog stands, in Belgium it's served as a cold cut, and southern Italians traditionally consume horse steaks. In France, horsemeat sales rose a reported 15 per cent.

But the joy didn't last. Soon, horsemeat DNA was found in frozen lasagne in the Czech Republic, in Nestle beef pasta meals in Spain, in lasagnes, tortellini and goulash sold in France, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany.

There was outrage. It's one thing occasionally choosing to eat horse. It's quite another having it surreptitiously slipped into your dinner.

"I can't say this is the end," the German consumer protection minister, Ilse Aigner, said on Monday. "We have to count on other cases being discovered."

Meanwhile, Europeans were coming face to face with the grim realities of the modern food industry. As the food politics expert Marion Nestle noted, the supply chain is so complicated that it is next to impossible to trace European meat to its source. A lot of companies and countries are involved in one frozen lasagne: multinationals shift their suppliers as exchange rates and commodity prices fluctuate; brokers, wholesalers and subcontracters make up a food chain that KPMG estimated has 450 links from animal to consumer.

However a tenuous cause and effect gradually emerged.

As the recession hit Europe, supermarket shoppers drove down prices, seeking special offers and cheap ready-meals. But beef prices were at record highs as the price of grain, and energy costs to transport and process the meat soared. Meanwhile Romania started enforcing a law banning donkey- and horse-drawn carts on main roads: many out-of-work equines went for butchering.

The scene was set for someone to join the dots.

According to The Observer, Polish and Italian mafia gangs ran "multimillion-pound scams to substitute horsemeat for beef during food production" - bribing or intimidating officials to sign off the meat as beef. However this may not be behind the current scandal. From a Romanian abattoir, the horsemeat was bought by a Dutch trader registered in Cyprus (suspiciously, the company was called Draap - Dutch for horse backwards. The trader, Jan Fasen, had previously been convicted of passing horse off as beef). The abattoir claims it has paperwork proving it sold the meat as horse, not beef.

Draap sold it to a French company, Spanghero, which the French government said was the first agent to stamp the horse as beef. It then sold it to French food production company Comigel, which subcontracted its ready meal production to a factory in Luxembourg, which produces about 16,000 tonnes a year of frozen ready-meals for retailers such as Findus and Tesco, as well as schools, hospitals, company canteens and retirement homes in France and Britain.

Et voila, horse lasagne. Bon appetit.

So what are the chances this could happen in Australia? Lorraine Belanger, a spokeswoman for Food Standards Australia New Zealand, says "it appears unlikely meat substitution is occurring in Australia or New Zealand". We are overwhelmingly a meat exporter.

One report found that only one half of 1 per cent of beef consumed in Australia came from overseas: New Zealand and Vanuatu.

Also, as FSANZ pointed out, there are laws over meat processing, composition and labelling, as well as industry codes of practice and retailer quality assurance processes.

The NSW Food Authority said last week it conducted random species testing of meats sold at butchers, and there was a "low risk" of the EU substitution being experienced here, thanks to our minimal food imports and vigilant food quality regime.

But a few weeks ago an abattoir on the NSW north coast was convicted of "large-scale lamb substitution". As long as there is a financial incentive, it seems, there will always be someone trying to dress mutton up as lamb.

This story Tainted grub in Europe's food bowl first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.