How did the enactment of an obscure transport law in Eastern Europe change the face of food manufacturing forever? Karen Constable investigates the link between Romanian road rules and the horsemeat scandal.
Almost four years after it first made headlines, the series of incidents that became known ‘horsegate’ continues to impact the global food industry. It began in January 2013, when Irish authorities revealed they had discovered horsemeat in burgers that were supposed to contain 100% beef. The discovery sparked a frenzy of testing and soon horsemeat was being discovered in dozens of different products in countries all over Europe and beyond. The sheer scale of the contamination sent shock waves through the food manufacturing world. Occurring five years after the melamine in milk powder scandal of 2008, which sickened over 300,000 babies in China, this incident was unfolding much closer to home for food manufacturers in Europe. It was a wakeup call for our industry: we could no longer pretend that food fraud of a similar scale and impact as the melamine milk scandal could not happen in the western world.
The scandal resulted in market withdrawals of tens of millions of food products across Europe, millions of euros of lost business and multiple prosecutions. Consumers’ trust in manufactured food plummeted and sales of frozen hamburgers and frozen ready meals dropped by 43% and 13% respectively in the United Kingdom in the month following the first product withdrawal.
Despite some media reports claiming that the first horsemeat discovery was the result of ‘routine’ testing, it is now known that the scandal was uncovered almost by accident. As strange as it may seem to the wider community, it is unusual for food manufacturers and regulatory authorities to test foods for materials that are not expected to be present. This is, of course, how the perpetrators of the Chinese melamine fraud could conduct their activities on such a large scale for what is thought to be a significant length of time. The original horsemeat tests were conducted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland because a sharp-eyed inspector had noticed a discrepancy between packaging and labelling of frozen meat.
As the investigations began it became apparent that law enforcement and regulatory authorities were ill-equipped to manage the complex cross-border issues that arose. Supply chains seemed hopelessly complicated to unravel, with on-paper ownership of meat often disconnected from the physical whereabouts of the food. By the time the scandal was declared over, investigators had identified at least three entirely separate supply chains involving different slaughterhouses, traders, processors and criminals.
Horsemeat and beef meat are similar in appearance, texture and flavour. Yet the European market for horsemeat is relatively small compared with beef; it is not consumed by people in many Western European cultures. For unscrupulous merchants, however, horsemeat’s abundance and low price made it the perfect substitute for beef. With access to a cheap, abundant adulterant, the criminals appeared to have an easy job of it. It was so easy, in fact, that swapping horse for beef appears to have been a long-term business plan for at least one of the meat traders involved in the scandal, Jan Fasen. Fasen had been convicted and jailed for a similar fraud in 2007. The name of his company, Draap, is the Dutch word for horse spelt backwards.
Much of the horsemeat found in the affected products originated in Romania, the by-product of a unique set of circumstances which affected the availability and price of horse meat in that country. Six years prior to the scandal, a law had been passed banning horse drawn vehicles from the streets of cities and towns in Romania. Within a few years there was a surplus of unwanted horses, with abandoned animals roaming city streets and parks. The horses were rounded up and exported to slaughterhouses in neighbouring countries where they were slaughtered for legitimate human and pet food. By 2007, however, concerns about the spread of equine infectious anaemia, a disease which was endemic in Romania, resulted in a ban on the trading of live Romanian horses. With live exports stopped, there was nowhere for the horses to go. Enterprising local businessmen built their own slaughterhouses in Romania and began to export horse meat to Europe.
Draap Trading, a company operated from Belgium and registered in Cyprus, was among those that purchased Romanian horsemeat. It shipped the meat to the Netherlands where it was re-labelled as beef. From there it was sold to legitimate meat processors, including one in France who supplied the factory in Luxembourg that manufactured lasagne and spaghetti bolognese for Findus and Aldi.
Romania was not the only source, however: the burgers at the centre of the initial discovery in Ireland contained horsemeat that came not from Romania but from Britain, Germany and Poland, via another Dutch trader, Willy Selten. In 2015 Selten was jailed for 2.5 years for crimes related to the fraudulent supply of horsemeat in 2011 and 2012. In November 2016 he was ordered to pay €1.2m – the estimated proceeds of his crimes – to the Dutch government.
Given the history of Selten and Fasen, it seems likely that undeclared horse was present in the European food supply for many years, remaining undetected and causing no apparent harm to consumers. We will never know whether those responsible considered the safety of consumers when planning their crimes. We do know that unsafe adulterants are more likely to be detected, which makes them less attractive to fraudsters. Certainly, in the melamine scandal in China, just a few years prior, consumer harm played an important role in the detection of the fraud. In that case, it is likely that low levels of melamine had been added to milk powder and other products for many months or years without causing any immediate or obvious harm to anyone. It is thought that the concentration of melamine in baby formula increased in 2007 and 2008 and it was the higher levels that caused kidney problems in babies. The fraud was uncovered by authorities investigating the illnesses. Perhaps the extra melamine had been added by mistake, or perhaps the fraudsters got greedy. Either way, the adulteration was costly for the criminals as well as their victims: two of the people responsible were executed by firing squad in China in 2009.
During the horsemeat fiasco, and to the relief of the entire industry, no person was sickened or injured by the presence of horse in ‘beef’ products. There was, however, a major health scare: horsemeat can contain veterinary drugs, including phenylbutazone – “bute”, which can be harmful to human health. It was a lucky coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the contaminated products proved not to contain phenylbutazone.
As investigators worked behind the scenes, public events in the European food industry took on the appearance of collapsing dominoes: first was the withdrawal of 10 million burgers by Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Dunnes Stores and Iceland in United Kingdom. Tesco lost £300m in market value overnight. In the following weeks, Asda also removed tens of thousands of products from its shelves; Tesco and Aldi extended their withdrawal from burgers to ready meals; Waitrose withdrew meatballs because of fears they might contain pork; slaughterhouses in Yorkshire and Wales were raided by regulatory authorities; the scandal spread to France and multiple arrests were made on both sides of the English Channel.
By the end of March 2013, authorities had found horse labelled as beef in three Polish factories; equine DNA had been found in chicken nuggets in Greece; water buffalo and donkey had been found in South African burgers and more big brands, including Ikea, Birdseye and Nestle had been affected with their products withdrawn from markets in Cyprus, Belgium, Spain and Czech Republic.
By year’s end, Tesco’s annual profits had fallen by 52%. Consumer trust in large food manufacturers and retailers was at an all-time low: British consumer organisation ‘Which?’ reported that sixty percent of consumers had changed their shopping habits because of the scandal.
The British government commissioned Professor Chris Elliott to review and report on the implications of the horsemeat contamination for the British food industry. The Elliott review, as it became known, resulted in the creation of a special food fraud crime unit in that country and the development of a range of other collaborative enterprises across Europe including special functions within the European Joint Research Council (JRC) and food-focussed operations by Interpol.
The food safety community, initially shocked and alarmed at the potential safety implications of the adulteration soon began a period of discussion and introspection, which often centred around the unspoken question ‘What if the meat had been dangerous?’. The scandal broke at a time when the GFSI food safety standards were consolidating their revered positions at the pinnacle of ‘best practice’ manufacturing: the standards were being strengthened, lengthened and broadened. Audit durations were increasing, auditor qualifications and certification systems had become more stringent and standards for packaging, storage and distribution had been upgraded. And yet these GFSI-endorsed food safety management systems, considered to be the gold-standard for food manufacturing and administered with the strictest oversight, had revealed an Achilles heel the size of Bucharest. The GFSI promptly created the ‘Food Fraud Think Tank‘ to address the gaps and suggest solutions. This resulted in changes to GFSI’s guidance for food safety standards, with GFSI-endorsed standards being updated to reflect the updated guidance. The new guidance requires food businesses to formally address the risks from fraudulently adulterated ingredients when they design their food safety management systems.
The food safety landscape had changed, seemingly overnight, from one that was focussed almost exclusively on unintentional or natural contamination to one that requires food manufacturers to consider, control and prevent more unpredictable and sinister events.
In the wake of these changes, a new discipline of food study has appeared. It is now possible to study food fraud at prestigious educational institutions, attend international conferences devoted to the topic and tune in to webinars conducted by specialists in compliance, legislation and testing. Analytical chemistry researchers are developing ever-more sophisticated test methods for detecting adulterants. Food businesses large and small are developing better systems to prevent, deter and detect economically motivated adulteration within their supply chains.
Food manufacturers are slowly regaining the trust of consumers, helped by the visible presence of enforcement operations and government initiatives such as the United Kingdom’s Food Crime Unit and Interpol’s Operation Opson in Europe as well as the Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) in the United States.
And what of the adulterated beef? We can only guess at how many tonnes of it was eaten by unsuspecting consumers in countries all over Europe before the scandal broke. Contaminated product that was withdrawn from the market – tens of millions of units – was destroyed; either buried in landfill or used as animal feed. It seems a sad and wasteful journey for the unwanted horses of Romania; a journey conceived by men who wanted to be rich and one that ultimately changed the face of food manufacturing forever.