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What the Horsemeat scandal teaches us

Although the current horsemeat scandal has been depicted as an instance of fraud and mislabelling generated by one source, a closer look reveals instead a broader, generalized misleading practice that could escape our “strict” food regulatory regime.

Both the food-safety authorities and the business operators involved appear to have dismissed the ongoing crisis as an isolated case of contamination of beef products with horsemeat in the EU food chain. As the European Food Safety Authority rhetorically stated, echoed by several food multinationals, "There is no evidence to date of a food safety concern."

Amid the public outcry about the various recent horsemeat scandals, the discovery of unlabeled traces of meat in beef products has already prompted a demand for the introduction of further regulatory requirements governing the marketing and labelling of food products. In particular, several MEPs, consumer organizations and the EU Commissioner seem to look into mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) as a panacea for preventing this sort of misleading practice.

But before rushing to the first fancy policy options available, one has to holistically consider which benefits would stem from extending COOL to more food products measured against the costs this would generate. Mandatory provisions have been developed for confirming the origin of many food products—such as honey, fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil—and following the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, since 2000 these also apply to beef and beef products.

Yet no country of origin labelling is required for meat that’s used as an ingredient. Will the extension of COOL to apply to meat used as ingredient—as currently envisaged by Article 26(6) of the new Regulation on Food Information to Consumers—be capable per se of preventing a new horsemeat scandal from happening again?

I don’t believe that it’ll be the imposition of an additional requirement about the indication of the origin of a meat ingredient of a product that will avoid the misleading character of a labelling indication.

Unfortunately, the public outcry generated by the horsemeat scandal is likely to render emotional the prospective assessment by the EU Commission of the feasibility of extending COOL to meat used as ingredient.  Once more, policymakers will sell the EU consumer the illusion of addressing their concerns while instead relying on the first available policy option that promises a quick fix. As illustrated in the UNECE publication Risk Management in Regulatory Frameworks, creating rules is definitely easier, though more expensive for tax payers, than making sure that they are abided  by.


Read more about what UNECE does:

Risk Management in Regulatory Framework