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The Horsemeat Scandal

February 15, 2013

So, you’re living in Europe. Imagine sitting down one evening to a fine frozen dinner; lasagna, from your favorite store. Imagine waking up the next morning and finding pictures of a box of lasagna which seems suspiciously identical to the one in which your delicious frozen food was contained the night before plastered all over the news. Imagine, further, that the most trusted name in news is telling you that there was horse meat in this lasagna.

As if this wasn’t enough in and of itself, it turns out that this meat, whatever it was, ended up in the frozen lasagna on your plate that you bought from a supermarket didn’t even come from animals raised in your country, or even the country next door (this is Europe, borders are pretty open). No, this meat found its way there from a French company who told its subsidiary in Luxembourg to make the product, who bought some meat from another French company that found a trader from Cyprus that subcontracted this to a Dutch company who bought meat from a Romanian slaughterhouse (whose owners happen to be brothers of the Romanian agriculture minister) that then got sent to the second French company in the south of France, Spaghero.

This presents something of a frightening situation. Why, then, might something such as this be the case?

Said Elizabeth Dowler, a professor who looks at food and social policy at the University of Warwick, “Food is treated as a commodity.It is not seen as something that contributes to well-being… The reality is that the food system is largely in the private sector and it is about running businesses, very successful businesses that make a lot of money.” So, as a reaction to demand for cheap products (i.e., frozen lasagna as the case is here), a horrendously complicated food network is in place to put a variety of cheap products on the shelves year round.

There are a number of regulatory practices in place to prevent such things from happening, but it might be that budget cuts are to blame for such holes in the system that would let horse meat get mislabeled as beef. Is this oversight?

An article in Germany’s Spiegel had some interesting side notes: The British environmental secretary alluded to an “international conspiracy,” while Bernard Jenkin, a conservative MP, said that “The EU single market is an invitation to fraud.” This may be a bit of an overreaction. Said David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, “I follow very carefully about what the Food Standards Agency say and what the Food Standards Agency say is that there is nothing unsafe on our shelves.” An aide said further of inter-governmental European responses to this scandal,The right thing to do from a European angle is for us to co-operate closely with other agriculture ministers in those countries and work closely together with them to understand what has been going on.”

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical website, provides a wealth of information on what kinds of agricultural products are produced every year. It has data on how many tons of bovine meat are produced every year, as well as data on how many tons of equine meat are produced each year. On this latter point, two things are important: one, there is no reported data since 2008,  and two, no information from Romania on the amount of equine meat produced yearly is provided at all. The Eurostat data for Romanian equine slaughtering is either unavailable or reported as “zero.”  If indeed this horse meat did come from Romania, then we are either faced with a phantom horse-slaughtering industry or there are serious deficiencies in reporting standards which, if any of the central aspects of this problem are to be rectified, should be improved.

Let’s look at net production from year to year between the two, from 2000 to 2008:

horsetonne bovinetonne

 

It’s important to note that equine meat production is only a very small fraction compared to bovine production, at least until 2008. (If we had more recent information we would know for sure.) Maybe that’s the work of the recession. Taking the data for bovine meat production out a few years shows a relatively steep decline in beef production since 2008, almost to the level it was at in 2000:

bovine0011

Note: graphs were made using data readily available on http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu

Who knows? As a fun aside, Comigel, the French company that seems to be responsible for the distribution of this horse meat, was purchased by a private equity firm in 2007. Céréa Capital, the private equity group which purchased Comigel, has this to say on its website about its business practices:”Céréa Capital arranges company acquisitions through bank and mezzanine financing in order to optimise shareholders’ capital investments.” This seems pretty much in line with what Elizabeth Dowler is quoted as saying above.The group’s “targets” (one can assume here they’re talking about companies they typically purchase) are “French or European SMEs (small or medium enterprises) with an enterprise value usually in a range from €15m to €150m.” They also say that they typically invest for 3 to 7 years. They are primarily interested in agribusiness, and have this to say about their undertakings there:

“Europe is the world’s leading agribusiness power with over 300.000 companies active throughout the sector today. These companies are constantly raising their level of competitiveness to meet growing market demands and find solutions for the food supply challenges of tomorrow. Some of these companies must also ensure the transmission of their capital and need to consider modifying their shareholding or joining forces in order to remain independent and competitive. Céréa provides such companies with the required financial resources and the support of a renowned agribusiness specialist committed to the success of their corporate evolution and future business development.”

Spanghero, the other French company involved in this, is owned by Lur Berri, a cooperative based in the south of France. As of February 14, 2013, the company’s license was suspended after the French government found that they knowingly sold horsemeat labeled as beef to Tavola, a subsidiary of Comigel that produces the frozen meals in which the tainted beef was found. Comigel reminds us that,”Since 1976 our sales teams have been active in developing, offering and proposing a wide range of frozen food products adapted to today’s various consumer trends.”

Was this that long ago?

berlinhorses

(this photo was taken in Berlin, Germany at the end of World War II)

Maybe people should take Roger Kelsey’s advice: buy local.

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