In early 2013, an uninvited equine guest was found on several European beef-only plates, giving way to a series of accusations, finger-pointing and investigations. Meat adulteration scandal has now spread to allegedly involve slaughter houses, suppliers and meat-based food producers from across Europe, with names of France, Ireland, Romania, Poland, Germany and the UK popping up on the news. Regardless of the authorities’ investigation outcome, one thing stays for sure – the consumers’ trust in the meat processing industry, already not very strong, has been further shaken.
While DNA tests confirmed horse meat presence in several beef products (in some cases even 100% horse meat in supposedly 100% beef dishes), there is no certainty yet on how horse meat entered the food chain. And the problem is not just with horse meat, as pork was also found in beef-only products, with further investigation for donkey meat as well. Horse meat, as well as pork and donkey, are edible, and does not cause harm to humans per se, but the problem is big – it is consumer misinformation as well as the fact that since horse meat should not be found in beef products at all, we don’t know whether it met any safety standards. The scale and spread of the scandal may suggest that it was not a one-off case of a dishonest supplier, but rather a silent, probably not infrequent industry practice of deliberate product mislabeling.
Consumers are outraged at the ‘evil meat producers’ responsible for the malpractice. They announce their shaken trust in meat processing industry (and food industry in general). But this smells of hypocrisy on the consumer’s side as well. Majority of consumers across most markets (apart from a small health-conscious group) have long taught food producers one fundamental truth – price is the most important factor in their purchasing decisions, driving producers to take shortcuts wherever possible. While there is no justification for the malpractice and deliberate fraud, food producers and suppliers are oriented at cutting costs to deliver products at the demanded price yet still maintain margins. Same is true across other industries – we openly condemn child and underpaid labor in several Asian manufacturing centers, yet continue to demand extremely low prices on electronics, apparel, etc., knowing where and how it’s been produced (or conveniently forgetting about it at the time of purchase).
The consequences of the scandal around meat products are likely to go beyond a temporary dip in processed beef products sales. Early surveys in some of the European countries, such as UK, indicated that close to 1/3 adult consumers said they want to buy less processed meat (not only beef), indicating potentially harder times for producers across meat segments. This is likely to spike consumer interest in fish and seafood products. However, the changed meat demand dynamics might not necessarily lead to the lowering of meat prices, as more stringent safety and control procedures might allow prices to remain stable. The rapid, and in some cases unfair, finger-pointing towards suppliers from Central and Eastern Europe will continue to damage meat exports of these countries, unjustly affecting farmers and suppliers. Consequences will also include added effort by supermarket chains to rebuild the shaken trust in meat products, i.e. Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, for instance, will re-test meat products to ensure compliance and launching widespread reassurance campaigns; these will add to cost burden to the chains – costs that are eventually going to be passed onto the consumers.
It will be a difficult time for producers and suppliers found guilty of introducing horse meat to the human food chain, as under the pressure of public opinion, authorities aren’t likely to be easy on them. But meat producers who are able to be transparent and honest about their procurement and processing procedures, can actually benefit from the scandal, as more and more consumers will look beyond price and start to value quality (at least temporarily till the memory of the scandal is fresh).
So as the scandal unfolds, there are a few important questions here: Will it improve transparency of the supply chains in meat processing industry? Will it improve the quality of meat products we purchase and feed our families with? Will it force the authorities across Europe to improve control measures? Will it enforce correct labeling of products? And finally, will it make us, consumers, permanently shift our focus from price only to quality-oriented purchases? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, perhaps there is a silver lining to this scandal after all.