February 15, 2013

Horsemeat scandal hits Germany

caricature: Oli Sebel
A problem of definition: Doesn't that cow look a little like a horse?
The European horse and pig contamination scandal has now reached Germany and set alarm bells ringing throughout the trade.

As numerous national Food Standards Authorities belatedly scramble to look active, German retailers have also started to pull own label products containing processed beef from their shelves.
 
To date, checks are being made at six big German retailers after warnings were received from the European authorities. Already, lightning consumer surveys show that four out of ten German consumers intend to refrain from buying ready meals containing beef.

In an effort to calm nerves, Metro Group hypermarket subsidiary "real,-" has recalled its "Tip" own-label, deep-frozen lasagna after traces of horsemeat were found in samples.

Edeka, Germany's largest food retailer, also confirmed to Lebensmittel Zeitung that it removed its "Gut & Günstig" own-label lasagna bolognese from stores on Tuesday for the same reason.
 
All seem surprised, but, in reality, the whole "horsegate" affair was an "accident" waiting to happen.

Precautionary Measures

 
As a precautionary measure, Kaiser's Tengelmann took own-label lasagna and burgers from its shelves last week after a supplier pointed to possible problems.

A deep-frozen lasagna by brand manufacturer Eismann has also been recalled as a precautionary measure, says the Stuttgart-based Ministry for Consumer Protection (Bundesministerium für Verbraucherschutz).

The ministry confirms that suspect meat is believed to have been delivered to a cold store in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia between November and January. Government bodies cannot exclude that other companies or Federal States have received deliveries.

German retailers are now demanding confirmation from their suppliers that there has been no contamination. In turn, processors are checking their own delivery chains for any batches received from French pre-suppliers Comigel and Spangerho or Rumanian meat producer Carmolimp who appear to be implicated in the affair.

"Real.-" confirms that it has received meat products from Comigel subsidiary Tavola in Luxembourg.

Retailers and state authorities are scrambling to carry out DNA tests on deep-frozen beef products further to contamination cases in the UK, France, Switzerland, and Ireland.

Fight for survival

Many processors fear that their retail customers will now demand frequent DNA tests. As these average around €150, and take between two and four days to complete, past tests have generally only been made in suspicious cases.

Current high beef prices are also seen as part of the problem as they have exacerbated the "fight for survival" among processors.

Under current law, all parties in the food supply chain are obliged to document their pre-supplier and the customer to whom they sold the meat. No one is obliged, however, to do this for the whole chain of custody.

Heike Harstick, MD of the German Meat Federation (Verband der Fleischwirtschaft), which has done much to promote traceability since the tragic BSE fiasco, is convinced that state controls, quality labels such as the "QS-Prüfzeichen", and existing EU regulations are "sufficient" to guarantee meat integrity.

But the EU Commission has already voiced a wish for accredited laboratories to conduct DNA tests. This Friday, experts from 27 EU member states will discuss the best way to prevent future cross-contamination. The first 2,500 tests could start in March, and around 200 of these would be in Germany.

The EU Commission is also considering introducing a binding declaration of country of origin for processed products. To date, such declarations have only applied to fresh beef.

Suppliers regard the proposed declaration of provenance with mixed feelings. Many say that buying surplus meat on spot markets would increase costs for processors. "But retailers aren't prepared to pay for increased transparency," one supplier notes bitterly.

Criminal conspiracy

What could well turn out to be a criminal conspiracy, has certainly undermined consumer trust in meat, ready meals, fast-food products, and retailer own label in general. Top brands, the few remaining local butchers, organic meat as well as vegan and vegetarian products will find a ready market.

In retrospect, the whole affair has a depressing inevitability about it, and, is probably only the tip of an iceberg. What astonishes most is the lack of foresight among many national Food Standards Authorities and the best names in retailing.

Cost efficiency as well as the relentless demand for ever cheaper food and greater profit dictate that huge amounts of meat are transported long distances throughout Europe, irrespective of carbon footprint. At around €2.60 per kilogram horsemeat is approximately half the price of beef.

Everyone in the trade knows that the food chain is international and complicated; all are aware of the ruthless battle for survival, where there is an increasing temptation to cut corners; and it is common knowledge that ground processed meat is particularly easy to falsify.

As the scandal widens throughout Europe and the blame game gains momentum, one can only ask why top international retailers, who have a lucrative customer franchise and own label name to lose, failed to have an adequate meat DNA testing regime?

Tesco's mea culpa

In a desperate attempt to restore consumer confidence, leading UK retailer Tesco, for instance, has made a public apology on its website and even CEO Philip Clarke has addressed customers personally online.

All these "mea maxima culpa" PR exercises in damage limitation are for circumstances that may well have been outside Tesco's control; but were they also beyond this mighty company's capacity to check?

As has often been said: Good crisis management starts before the crisis. Admittedly, species tests don't come cheap, but they are vastly more expensive after the horse has bolted.
 
  
Related article in German: Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 7, 15.02.2013 by Iris Tietze, Gabriel von Pilars, Annette C. Müller, Hans-Jürgen Schulz, Bernd Biehl & Mike Dawson
 
  

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Paddy19
    Created 16 February, 2013 11:43 | Permanent link

    Credit to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland who it seems is the only regulatory authority in Europe that thought it worthwhile to perform a DNA test on product pulled from supermarket shelves.

  2. Mike Dawson
    Created 18 February, 2013 07:53 | Permanent link

    Well done, the Irish! The FSA in Ireland is stinted by the swingeing cuts which have hit this small country in the wake of the financial crisis, yet it still managed to raise the alarm and risk the umbrage of powerful retailers and other vested interests.

    One would have thought that, for instance, the FSA in the UK, with its numerous employees and the tax payer money available to it, would have done a better job at protecting consumers from such an obvious threat.

    The well-funded German authorities, in a country which prides itself on superior efficiency, also failed to warn the public in advance. Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner is now demanding "a national control programme with additional tests" etc., but the relevant government organisations have egg on their face.

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