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More than mere fraud

The horsemeat fiasco reveals shortcomings in the monitoring system that must be corrected

The detection of horsemeat in products labeled as beef has revealed a fraudulent practice so widespread as to indicate grave shortcomings in the system of monitoring the food that is sold to the public. The fact that the label on packaging does not correspond to its real content is a fraudulent practice that must be prosecuted and punished. The companies concerned may be congratulated on their quick reaction. Aware of the detrimental effects on their brand names, they carried out analyses and quickly withdrew the fraudulent products from sale. But what has happened is more than mere fraud in labeling — in Spain and throughout Europe — and action must be taken in consequence.

Horsemeat is not, in itself, the problem. Provided it is subject to the usual health controls, it is just as suitable for consumption as beef or mutton. The question is that what at first appeared to be an isolated instance, discovered in Ireland a month ago in a routine check, has turned out to be a practice that is common across the whole of Europe, affecting a whole range of products prepared by various brand names. It is the extent of the fraud that alerts us to the disturbing vulnerability of the food supply system.

The stages involved in the production, packaging and distribution of a hamburger or a packet of meatballs is so complex, extensive and generally sub-contracted that its monitoring is becoming ever more difficult. Now, after some weeks, it has not even been possible to determine where the meat came from in some cases.

The investigations carried out so far point to several companies that supply raw material, which indicates that the fraud may be more widespread than was at first suspected. We must hope that the analyses ordered by the EU will throw light on what exactly has been going on. For the moment, what we know is that the traceability system has not made it possible to know where the horsemeat entered the process; and that this system is, as the French authorities have pointed out, ineffective in the case of pre-cooked food products.

In this case, if the usual controls have not prevented the presence of horsemeat where there ought to have been only beef, it is hard not to think that perhaps they would be equally incapable of preventing other frauds, some of which might be dangerous to public health. The monitoring system has to be revised, and the necessary corrections adopted.

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