Two years ago today, the biggest food scandal in the UK since the BSE crisis, hit the headlines.
The horsemeat scandal of 2013 heightened consumer fears over not knowing the full story of what is in the food we buy. Horsemeat had been switched for beef, leaving the horse-loving nation of Britain stunned and distrustful.
Europe’s food industry became engulfed in a rapidly unfolding saga that quickly degenerated into a furious blame-game. Keen to avoid taint from the torrent of revelations, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, blamed supermarkets, who blamed their suppliers, who pointed to distant traders in far-away lands. Consumers were left baffled and angry.
The alarm was first raised by the Irish Food Safety Authority and supermarket giant Tesco was one of the first to be involved; an ‘Everyday Value’ beef burger from the store contained 29% horsemeat. The offending burger was manufactured in Ireland from meat thought to be of Polish origin.
Other supermarkets were affected, with horsemeat also being found in beef products from discount supermarkets, Aldi and Lidl. Within days, 10 million burgers – enough calories to feed a million people for a day – had been removed from shelves by worried retailers.
A fraudulent labelling scam across Europe had been uncovered. The stakes were high; recession-hit food companies could really do without a food scare further denting profits.
Day after day, fresh revelations involved more big name brands. Consumers reacted by shunning frozen burgers, with UK sales dropping by 43%. Britain’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, placed full page advertisements in national newspapers with the headline, “We apologise” and suffered its sharpest fall in market share for two decades.
‘Horsegate’, as it became known, was all about trust. Consumer confidence had crashed and companies licked wounded reputations.
Some admitted having lost control of their supply chains which, over the years, had become longer and more complex, with food often passing through several hands before getting to the supermarket. Some blamed the scandal on pressure for low prices during the recession, horsemeat being cheaper than beef. “We now need the supermarkets to stop scouring the world for the cheapest products they can find” thundered the then president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), Peter Kendall.
BSE was a real own goal for industrial agriculture; turning natural herbivores – cows – into carnivores, feeding them meat & bone meal.
This latest scandal suggested that consumers are walking the supermarket aisles with a figurative blindfold, leaving them unable to distinguish between food from the land and ‘fresh’ from the factory farm.
The way food is produced has a big bearing on its quality; not just from an ethical standpoint, but also in terms of its nutritional quality and how it tastes. In short, consumers often don’t know what they’re buying from an industry that wants to keep it that way.
Our campaign on the related issue of method of production labelling, which would help us take a huge step towards a more transparent food system, is going strong. You can support it here.