A report on the radio last night suggested that the horse in your lasagne could have gone through around 12 ‘virtual’ hands as it was traded from Romania (where there is a glut of horsemeat as horse-drawn carts have been banned from the highways) to Italy, to France, to Poland to (quite likely) Tierra del Fuego and and back again, before landing up at Findus’ French manufacturers and being turned into lasagne. This most certainly throws an unpleasant light on the industrial nature of much of the food we eat – are we surprised that Hugh FW fulminates?
But apart from depressing us about the industrialisation of food and industry’s glaring lack of its much vaunted transparency, and incensing those whose cultural gastronomic predjudices have been offended, the scandal presented little in the way of danger. Until, that is, someone remembered that horses were regularly dosed with the non steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, phenylbutazone (‘bute’) which is not licensed for human consumption. The real risk to human health is probably very small – unless you eat nothing but horsemeat all you life – although prolonged use can give the poor horses ‘ulcers, kidney damage, internal haemorrhage, weight loss and, in advanced stages, kidney failure and death’ according to this morning’s Independent.
However, the arrival of ‘bute’ in the affair has allowed the blame to be shifted onto the Food Standards Agency who are meant to ensure that our food is safe – and contamination does indeed fall into their bag. But since this government emasculated the agency, transferring most of its powers to other governement agencies such as DEFRA and slashing both its budget and its workforce, it seems a little hard to blame them for failing to police the beef/horse situation when they have neither the money nor the staff to do so.
But never let it be said that any scandal comes without a silver lining. In this case it is David Cameron’s attempt to pass the whole affair off as ‘just a matter of labeling’ – which is focusing minds very nicely on labeling and its importance.
While some of those using gluten-free/dairy-free/nut-free foods may be panicking over the possibility that their food too may have been mis-labeled, I do not think they need to worry – well, no more than they would have worried anyhow. It seems pretty clear that the mislabeling in ‘horsegate’ is part of a criminal strategy to defraud. While the profits to be made out of dodgy beef/horsemeat are massive, those to be made out of mislabeled gluten-free bread are, relatively speaking, minute.
Not that this means that those wishing to exclude gluten, dairy, nuts, egg etc from their diets do not need to worry about labeling – they absolutely do. Of the seven allergy alerts/product withdrawals listed on the FSA allergy alerts page between 9th January and 7th February this year, all are for products that have been mislabeled – not for products that have been contaminated. So accurate labeling (setting aside it helpfulness) remains an issue requiring better and tighter controls throughout the industry.
But, if course, it is not just the accurate listing of what is/is not in the product that they are concerned about – it is the allergen advice and that dreaded ‘may contain’.
Many efforts have been, and are being, made by the industry and the regulators to find ways in which manufacturers can protect themselves and yet still give helpful and useful information to the allergic consumer. Not ‘may contain nuts’ for example, but ‘no nuts in the ingredients but manufactured in a factory which does use nuts’ or ‘made in a nut-free facility but cannot guarantee the source of the ingredients to be nut free’ etc etc. But all too many manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, have still really not ‘got it’.
As you are no doubt aware, we have spent the last two weeks judging the entries for this year’s FreeFrom Food Awards. Depressingly we have had to ‘demote’ several excellent products from winning or highly commended positions because, when we came to look at the packs after we had made our decisions we found that a product which claimed to be ‘dairy free’ (or gluten free or nut free) had a ‘may contain traces of dairy’ at the bottom of the ingredients list. We even had one, entered into our new-this-year ‘manufactured in a nut free environment’ category, which said ‘may contain nut traces’ on the pack.
Neither we at the FreeFrom Food Awards nor the freefrom community at large expects (although some might like) all foods to be manufactured in dedicated facilities. But if they are not, then that manufacturer must provide full information about the potential risk to an allergic consumer so that they can decide for themselves whether or not to take that risk. It is not good enough to claim ‘dairy free’ and then add a ‘may contain’ rider. If those products had claimed ‘dairy free but manufactured in an environment where milk is used’, or ‘made in a dairy-free facility but cannot guarantee ingredients are dairy free’ then we would have taken a different view, but just ‘may contain’ is not enough.
But while these entrants can, maybe, be forgiven for not yet getting their heads properly around the problem, what is unforgivable is the ‘mix’ companies. A couple quite big ones prominently flagged up ‘dairy free, egg free, gluten free’ on their mixes and then, in the instructions, told you to used eggs, milk or flour to make up the product…..
Cartoons by Christopher White – sorry – could not resist…..