Sunday, 24 February 2013

The horsemeat scandal and the future of the meat industry

The horsemeat scandal rumbles on, with revelations that food producers Nestlé and Bird's Eye have joined Findus in recalling beef products found positive for containing horse meat. Despite these companies playing down the food safety implications of the issue, the controversy seems to widen every day, drawing in increasing numbers of food suppliers. This furore has raised alarming questions about the safety of meat products and the trustworthiness of major producers, in addition to animal welfare issues.

The scandal has swept across Europe, affecting countries like France, Italy and Germany. The latter country seems to view the issue less seriously than others; its Development Minister Dirk Niebel suggesting that the tainted meat be given to the poor. His comment that 'We can't just throw away good food' underlines a fundamental misunderstanding around this matter, that it is just a few regulatory authorities getting in a tizzy over mislabelling. The human health implications are disturbing. While there is nothing inherently unsafe about consuming horsemeat, the animals involved were not raised to be eaten. Horses are frequently dosed with the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, which has it has been known to cause aplastic anaemia in humans

What this controversy will mean for the meat industry in Europe is as yet unclear. What is clear is the urgent need for improved traceability at all stages of meat production and processing. French President Françoise Hollande has called for compulsory labelling and full traceability of meat used in processed food on a European level. The lacklustre response from the Irish Government and fact that several Irish producers have been implicated have led to calls for a sea change in the meat industry. However, it was the Food Safety of Ireland's tracing system that brought this matter to light to begin with, exposing some major flaws in meat safety and accountability criteria among European producers.

What we need is stricter adherence to the laws that already exist, and to me, the best way to achieve this is to process Irish meat in Irish factories for consumption at home and abroad. On average, Ireland exports 216,000 head of cattle per year, a practice which is not only cruel and stressful for the animals, but helps prevent a fully-fledged meat production industry from developing in Ireland.

Ireland has ancient associations with cattle and herding. It is internationally renowned for producing quality grass-fed beef, and this reputation may be materially damaged by this fiasco, which may not be a public health scare, but is certainly public relations disaster. An end to live exports would mean a massive boost to the economy in Ireland. Instead of sending our resources overseas, we should be adding value to them right here in Ireland. In doing so, we would create a food industry that would not only create jobs in farming, processing and packing, it would boost other service industries like delis, butchers, restaurants and local supermarkets, not to mention ancillary industries. Profit would remain in Ireland. Jobs would be created. Communities would thrive.

When animals are slaughtered and processed far from where they were reared, accountability and oversight is often absent. This is why scandals like this one happened, and may well happen again.

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