Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Food scares ... again

By John Humphrey

Food is once more in the news in the European Union. This time it is about a variety of food products containing horsemeat when they are meant to be beef. The same scandal has led to the identification of DNA from other animals in supposedly beef products. These events highlight, once again, the complexity of food chains within the European Union, the difficulties in maintaining control over complex food production systems, and the ways in which food from one point in the food chain spills out to many products sold in many countries.

So far, this crisis has been identified predominantly as a labelling issue. Consumers think they are buying and eating beef, but it is actually horsemeat. Concerns about food safety have been mostly limited to the possibility that the horsemeat might contain residues of a veterinary drug that can be harmful to human health. However, there is a more fundamental food safety problem here. If the factories producing horsemeat burgers and horsemeat lasagne don't even know what kind of meat they are using, then they should not have very much confidence about the information they received on where the meat came from and the conditions under which it was processed. This information is basic for the food safety system. Even if the meat in these products was genuine beef, the safety of the system would depend upon accurate knowledge of the animals' origins, the safety of the abattoirs in which they were slaughtered, etc. It has to be assumed that no reliable information on these issues is available.

This food scare might appear to be just a problem to the European Union. But in the past the response of developed country food safety authorities to food safety scares and resulting falls in consumer confidence has been to tighten up on food safety. This was seen in the European Union after the BSE (‘mad cow’) epidemic in the 1990s, and it has been evident more recently in the United States with the passing of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. In both cases, new food safety legislation aimed predominantly at addressing domestic food safety problems has had substantial impacts on exports from developing countries to these markets (for an analysis of the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act, see ‘Food Safety, Private Standards, Schemes and Trade: The Implications of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act’.

In the case of horsemeat, the impact of any new legislation or any tightening up of controls in the European Union is likely to impact a relatively small number of developing countries. Trade in meat is already highly restricted because of concerns about human and animal health. But the next food safety scare might have broader ramifications.

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