Who is going to eat unwanted horsemeat?

Tons of tainted products have been destroyed or are in storage Firms are waiting for EU approval to donate them to food banks

Horsemeat products on display earlier this month at a butchers in Bremen.
Horsemeat products on display earlier this month at a butchers in Bremen.INGO WAGNER (EFE)

Some 10 metric tons of hamburgers are currently in storage at the warehouses of Emcesa, a supplier of low-cost supermarket AhorraMas. The chain decided to withdraw them from sale and return them to Emcesa on January 29, after a report by the Spanish OCU consumer rights group warned of the presence of horse DNA in them.

Tomás García, the managing director of Emcesa, says he doesn't know what to do with them: "They are perfectly okay for human consumption, with just the tiniest quantities of horsemeat in them, something that we didn't know when we labeled them as beef. We thought it was a waste to just throw them away, so we decided to freeze them and ask the authorities if we could at least donate them to a food bank. We're still waiting for a reply."

The burgers can be kept for six months, after which they will have to be destroyed. García says he hopes for a reply from the regional government of Madrid before then. "The problem is that it is Brussels that has to decide. We have no experience of these kinds of matters, where the meat comes from an animal that in some countries is not eaten, and nobody knows what to do with it. If it were pork, I believe that they would have answered us by now, but this is new, and of course we don't know the origin of the horses. Which is why Brussels is taking so long to answer."

Suppliers like Emcesa in other EU member states face the same problem. French company Picard, a chain of low-cost frozen foods, has withdrawn around 3,500 lasagne and chili con carne ready meals after discovering that they contained horsemeat. "We haven't taken a decision about what to do with them until we know the results of an investigation by the health and consumer authorities. If they say that there is no health risk, then we will probably put them back on sale," the company said in a statement.

They are perfectly okay to eat, with just the tiniest quantities of horsemeat"

The first cases of beef products containing horsemeat were discovered in the United Kingdom in early January; since then, others have followed throughout the EU, with supermarkets removing tons of meat products from sale, but not knowing what to do with them. Some companies, like Emcesa and Picard, are holding on to them, hoping that they can either put them back on sale, or at least give them to charities, but others have already destroyed the products because they say they cannot guarantee that they will not have defrosted during removal and storage, or because they have short sell-by dates.

Vast quantities of food have been thrown away, despite not presenting any risk to health. The problem is simply that they contain small amounts of horsemeat, something that the label does not mention.

Spanish supermarket chain Eroski also removed hamburgers after the OCU report, while multinational Nestlé has also withdrawn its pasta ready meals from retail outlets in Spain and Italy. Both have destroyed the products.

Eroski first analyzed all its beef products with the intention of returning them to its shops if they were found not to contain horse meat. "But by the time the results of the analysis arrived, the products had passed their sell-by date and we had to throw them out. It was a shame, because no horsemeat was found in them," says a company spokesman.

Getting frozen products to food banks is complex and costly

Nestlé says that it thought long and hard before deciding to throw out food. "The first thing we asked ourselves is whether we could at least donate the food to charity. But after looking into the possibilities, the management decided that it was too dangerous to try to conserve the products because they were distributed across dozens of outlets all over Spain and Italy, and it was very difficult to guarantee that they would be returned without having defrosted at some point. So we told all our distributors to destroy the product and that we would reimburse them the cost," the company said in a statement.

Nestlé says that getting frozen products to food banks is complicated and costly: to begin with, few charities have sufficient freezers to keep them in, as the Spanish Federation of Food Banks, FESBAL, explains: "If we were given sufficient warning, and as long as there were no health or safety problems, perhaps a few of our bigger banks, such as those in Barcelona or Madrid, which have trucks, as well as cold storage facilities, could carry out an emergency operation. But before we could do anything, we would have to talk to the relevant authorities and look at the facts, because we have no experience in dealing with horsemeat, which some people might not want to eat, even if it is okay for human consumption," says a FESBAL spokesman.

Food companies regularly donate products to food banks that have been mislabeled, and there are no legal impediments to doing so. "It is only prohibited in cases where there are risks, for example, when a label fails to include ingredients that could produce allergies," says Sönke Lund, a specialist in food law.

Spanish food banks have procedures for dealing with foodstuffs that have labeling problems. "For example, sometimes we get batches of products that are in perfect condition but that have to be withdrawn because the label has been smudged and cannot be read properly. We simply ask the supplier to provide us with a certificate that guarantees the product is apt for human consumption," says Belén Giménez, a spokeswoman for the Barcelona Food Bank Foundation.

In the case of frozen food, the procedures are more complicated. "We have trucks and cold storage facilities, but we need more time to organize collection and distribution. In the case of Nestlé's ready meals, there simply wasn't enough time to organize collection and distribution. It is hard to respond quickly in situations where the authorities have not provided clear guidelines," explains Giménez.

Situations like the current horsemeat scandal do not happen every day, which means that in this case, most of the foodstuffs concerned will likely be destroyed, despite the growing need for food among Europe's growing numbers of poor. The problem exists throughout the world: the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says that 1.3 billion metric tons of food is thrown away each year, material which, if distributed properly, could feed 870 million people worldwide.

Food producers, distributors, governments, and consumers are increasingly aware of the scale of the problem, but the simple truth is that food safety is an extremely sensitive issue, and nobody, particularly producers, is prepared to take any risks. "A mistake in a crisis like this can destroy a company's reputation: they would rather lose money, even a lot of money, rather than see their brands tarnished," says Sönke Lund.

Governments are equally anxious to avoid any risk to health, but at the same time are wary of spreading panic by issuing a health warning. "It's a difficult balance. On the one hand, the authorities want to avoid unnecessary alarm, which can damage business and the economy of a country. On the other hand, they have to act quickly to avoid the danger of a food scare turning into a full-scale disaster," explains Lund.

Beef prices are at record highs, as grain and fuel costs have soared

All of this explains why the EU has still to decide on whether products containing horsemeat can be donated to charity, and why it has come under fire for issuing supposedly contradictory messages: on the one hand, it says that there is no danger from products that contain horsemeat; it is simply that the products concerned are not labeled appropriately. On the other hand, it is telling the governments of member states that they must carry out widespread analyses to find any trace of horsemeat in pre-prepared food. What's more, it has told governments that they must specifically look for horsemeat that contains phenylbutazone, a powerful veterinary analgesic that can be harmful to humans if taken in large doses.

Faced with these contradictory messages, both the food industry and charities are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"With the way things are right now, until we get an official report from the EU's health authorities, we cannot take these products. If it is confirmed that they are not a danger to health, and in the event that a company wishes to donate them to us, then of course we will distribute them. And of course we would let the people we were offering the food to know that these products contained horsemeat," says a spokesman for the French Federation of Food Banks.

For their part, food producers are not prepared to take any initiatives. "We do not have a joint policy for dealing with situations like this: they simply do not come up that often. That's why each company that is affected is doing what it thinks is best: some are destroying food, and others are storing it while waiting to be told what to do," says Nuria de Pedraza, a spokeswoman for AECOC, which represents some 25,000 of Spain's leading manufacturers and distributors.

The search for equine DNA

- January 16: The Irish food and health authorities detect high levels of horse DNA in frozen beefburgers sold through several major supermarkets in Ireland and the UK. Millions of burgers are removed from sale.

- February 7: The UK authorities detect horsemeat in frozen lasagna and spaghetti bolognaise sold by leading brand Findus.

- February 8: French company Comigel, which supplies Findus, says that it is withdrawing all beef products, and accuses supplier Spanghero of fraudulently using horsemeat in its products. Spanghero in turn blames suppliers in Romania, saying that meat products at its warehouses are supplied by various intermediaries. Findus withdraws three ready meal products from supermarkets in the UK, France and Sweden.

- February 14: The French authorities ban all Spanghero products, saying that up to 750 tons of meat products supplied by the company could be affected. Of this figure, 550 tons have been used by Comigel to make 4.5 million ready meals sold throughout Europe. The UK says that is has detected phenylbutazone in six slaughtered horses. Three people are arrested.

- February 18: German low-cost supermarket chain Lidl says that it is withdrawing frozen ready meals on sale in Finland, Denmark, Belgium and Sweden. Nestlé says it is withdrawing ready meals on sale in Spain and Italy, accusing a German supplier of fraudulently selling it products containing horsemeat.

The EU wants to find the origin of the scandal. France has pointed the finger at Romania, saying that some 750 tons of meat from there could be contaminated. The Romanian authorities hotly deny the accusation, saying that they have carried out their own investigation, and that they have found no trace of horsemeat in slaughterhouses. The problem is that the supply chain used by producers is so complex, with sub-contractors sub-contracting out in turn to other suppliers, many of them in Eastern Europe.

The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalized in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets.

Networks of brokers, cold store operators and subcontracted meat-cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders "just in time." Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can potentially break down.

Supermarket buyers and big brands have been driving down prices, seeking special offers on meat products as consumers cut back on their spending in the face of recession. The squeeze on prices has come at a time when manufacturers' costs have been soaring. Beef prices have been at record highs, mainly due to the increased costs of grain used to fatten cattle. The cost of energy, heavily used in industrial processing and to fuel centralized distribution chains, has also soared. There has been a mismatch between the cost of real beef and what companies are prepared to pay.

Licensed slaughterhouses across Europe are required to have an official vet in attendance when slaughtering takes place - in the UK most used to be directly employed by the government but many are now supplied under contract to the Food Standards Agency by the private company Eville & Jones. Plants over a certain size are also required to have a meat hygiene inspector. A trend to deregulate and leave industry to police itself, begun under the last government, has seen numbers of inspectors fall from 1,700 at the height of the BSE ("mad cow") crisis to around 800 now.

Smaller cutting plants are no longer subject to daily inspection. In Britain, the Food Standards Agency has limited powers - it has depended on industry alerting it to the results of tests on a voluntary basis. Enforcement largely falls to individual local authorities and their trading standards officers, and their budgets have been slashed.

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