Monday, February 11, 2013

Horsemeat scandal: in for a torrid time?

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A film on Sky News has a lorry driver who delivers meat has revealing "serious breaches of food safety regulations that he sees every day". There is a lot in this recognisable from my earlier piece, underlining the fact that much of the food safety system is a sham. 

Meanwhile, from Le Monde on the one hand, and the Mirror on the other, there are suggestions that Romanian horsemeat is produced legitimately, and properly labelled. 

The president of the FSIA union in Romania, Dragos Frumosu, tells le Monde that it is hard to believe that a Romanian slaughterhouse could produce horsemeat and label it beef. French importers, he says, might be complicit with the Romanian producer, changing the labels after delivery. 

More or less corroborating this, The Mirror has a source speaking of a "large French supplier" which buys cheap horse meat from the Romanian abattoirs and mixes it with meat bought from legitimate suppliers, selling it on up the supply chain as organic. 

However, the Romanian link is not the only problem. There is a definite report from Ireland, from two days ago, implicating "frozen beef products" containing 38 percent unlabelled horse meat. 

Here also, there is a "suspicion of fraud", which is strengthening Owen Paterson's contention that we are dealing with a criminal conspiracy of considerable proportions. 

With six French supermarket chains also withdrawing frozen beef products sold under the Findus brand, and dealers from Holland and Cyprus being implicated, the idea of there being a vast criminal network is gaining ground. 

But, with the inadequacies in the food control system showing up, and now with a suggestion that drug residues could be harmful, this could be a scare ready to take off onto a higher plane. 

It is a while since we had a full-blow food scare, so the media might just be ready for one. And, with Labour politicians intent on making mischief, this could run for some time. 

It is worth remembering though, that such scares tend to be media events. In both the egg and BSE scares, consumer buying patterns were very quickly restored after the initial shocks. The scares then became closed loops between the media and the politicians, feeding off each other, while for the public they became a spectator sport. 

Much the same seems to be happening here, with processed food sales largely unaffected by the adverse publicity. As before, only the politicians and the media are getting worked up. But if the public start to see a real threat, this could be the turning point, where we see the scare escalate. 

The Irish Times puts it well. Any further breaches of confidence could be extremely costly, it says. The paper adds that, if a controversy lasts for more than two weekends, then the problem is really serious. At this stage, the horse meat issue has gone on for four weeks. 

We could be in for a torrid few weeks before things settle down.