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Has the horsemeat scandal changed your shopping habits?

Horse shaped mincemeat cut out

Twelve months after the horsemeat scandal fiasco and our latest research shows that half of consumers say they have changed their shopping habits. Here’s more from my article in The Grocer.

A third say they are buying less meat and a quarter of people told us they are buying less processed meat. The Elliott Review’s interim report published in December, followed several other inquiries as well as our own recent research, and showed there now needs to be some fundamental changes to how food issues are handled and enforced.

Elliott emphasised the importance of putting consumers first and zero tolerance, lessons that were learned following the BSE crisis but are now being steadily undermined. He highlighted the need for a culture change across the industry, including more questioning of why the price being offered by suppliers can really be so low, and a systematic approach to tackling food crime at all levels.

Handing over food safety responsibility

Crucial to ensuring that consumers are much better protected in the future is the role of the Food Standards Agency. There has been a consensus across the inquiries into the horsemeat fiasco that moving food labelling and standards policy, out of the FSA and into Defra, was short-sighted and caused confusion. This now needs to be reversed so that there is a much closer link between enforcement and policy. There needs to be clarity of roles and responsibilities and we want food standards issues to be dealt with by the FSA which has an unambiguous remit to put consumers first.

Horsemeat also taught some crucial lessons about the importance of anticipating risks to the food supply chain. Among Elliott’s recommendations on this point is the need for an economic intelligence hub within the FSA. A far better understanding of the supply chain and its vulnerabilities is needed – including looking beyond the UK to identify practices in other countries that could affect UK consumers, as was the case with the consumption of horsemeat.

Setting up a food crime unit

Elliott has also made some important recommendations about much better co-ordination, including improving how the FSA and local authorities work. New research published by Which? this week looking at how local authorities are fulfilling their enforcement obligations has shown a very patchy picture with differing levels of protection depending on which part of the country you live in. FSA data collected from local authorities for 2012/13 shows that standards work has suffered, with testing for food labelling and presentation dropping by 16.2% and food standards interventions by 16.8% on the previous year. While some local authorities are performing well, others are even struggling to ensure compliance with hygiene standards in their area.

This research reinforces the need to take a more fundamental look at how enforcement is delivered. Elliott has suggested that the FSA needs to lead a new food crime unit. However, there is also a need to identify best practice in sharing of resources and expertise around the country in order to ensure there is a system in place that can deal with the risks posed by the diverse range of local food businesses as well as the complexity of the global supply chain.

This article first appeared in The Grocer on Saturday 18 January 2014.

renniemac says:
19 January 2014

I have changed the way I buy meat, thankfully I was partially doing this before the scandal. but now buy all of my meat from my local butcher whom I trust. Collins has been awarded best butchers in Scotland I can ask where my meat comes from and he can tell me. I never bought processed meals and am now glad I didn’t. I do still see things I don’t like especially at Tesco they sell Aberdeen Angus this and that, but when you look at the back it’s from Argentina or somewhere else but not Scotland. I want Aberdeen Angus which is bred in Scotland. just another word to everyone if you buy eggs with sco on the egg they are Scottish and are safer to eat. have not been tampered with. just glad I don’t eat supermarket meat anymore, goodness knows what the next scandal will be god help us dog/cat makes you think.

Very interesting point. I presume that while Aberdeen Angus applies to a breed of cattle and beef so described can come from any Aberdeen Angus livestock anywhere in the world, “Scotch” or Scottish Beef has to come exclusively from Scotland, from Scottish bovines, grazed on Scottish land, and slaughtered and processed in Scotland. If that is right I shall buy no other beef or beef products, independence or no. But can we be so sure . . .? I hope confirmation will be forthcoming.

I have not changed the way I buy meat. I have always avoided cheap products such as burgers, mince and sausages because I believe that there is a greater risk of adulteration. I don’t eat a lot of meat compared with most people, so probably spend less on meat than most people. We simply don’t need a lot of meat in our diet.

Besides public authorities policing the food chain it is incumbent upon retailers to know the quality and sources of their products, and to monitor them properly. Anyone caught supplying sub-standard food should be penalised. I don’t see how there are sufficient public resources to police the food market thoroughly enough htough so in my view the key is to buy food from retailers that you trust. We haven’t changed our eating habits – including meat – but are careful where we buy, and hope that trust proves justified. There will always be suppliers who will ignore the regulations – same as happens with counterfeit alchol and cigarettes sold in smaller stores.

I never buy frozen lasagne or those types of meat products, and buy as much as possible from the local butcher rather than a supermarket. The hysteria about horsemeat is misplaced, it’s not that the meat is from a horse, but the fact of the lies and disguise which makes one wonder about the hygiene of ANY of the seller’s meat prodcuts. Horsemeat in itself is very nourishing, in France people used to buy it especially for their children. I hope this has encouraged people to patronise their local artisan butcher rather than supermarkets.

The Elliott Interim Report mentioned in the introduction does look at all kinds of food “frauds and crimes” as it is a trade wide open to abuse. You are quite right Josephine of course – nothing at all wrong with horse meat from the right source. The scandal was retailers not knowing (well, we hope most didn’t) what was in the food they were buying in for resale – so were either very deficient or very irresponsible in their purchasing and quality control. The worry is: how many other foods are we buying that are defective in other ways? It seems many retailers would not know.

Josephine – Meat has to be assessed before it is passed as fit for human consumption. Any unscrupulous individual or organisation that passes off horse meat as beef is hardly likely to have complied with legislation. It is a matter of safety and not just false description that we are concerned with.

It does not matter whether meat comes from a local butcher or a huge supermarket. It has to be safe to eat.

Brilliant summary in the opening line referring to the “horsemeat scandal fiasco” débacle.

UK farmers have been given a hard time by the major supermarkets over the last few years . They’ve been beaten down on price, exhorted to achieve unrealistically low levels of product rejection [often over trivial issues that did not impair the intrinsic quality of the product], locked into exclusive supply agreements, and forced to wait months for payment. To add insult to injury their customers [“partners”!!] then started hawking around the back streets of Europe for meat minced [or “mechanically recovered” as they say in the trade] from any old carcass and passed off as beef. At least the shock and public outrage did, for once, have a salutary effect; the retailers realised that the usual slick marketing gloss wasn’t going to wash on this occasion so they put on the sackcloth and ashes and adopted a more responsible posture with the sourcing of supplies. As a result we probably now have a safer supply chain through the major supermarkets than existed before. Hopefully, there is now more support for UK farmers both from the retailers and the consumer. Overall it wouldn’t hurt us to eat less but better meat and the supermarkets should promote that policy. But as consumers we must watch out: the offending products have been destroyed, the full-page newspaper mea culpa’s have been consigned to the bin, and the Union Jack bunting was taken down in time for the great turkey disposal. But humility will not endure and hazard lurks in those icy cabinets that line the aisles, with the ever-defensive DEFRA as our only safeguard. It is absolutely essential that the enforcement functions are restored to a [beefed-up] FSA and that somebody in every retailer and meat processor is named as the accountable person for identifying the origin of every ingredient and ensuring it is honestly declared and correctly labelled.

Although I am a food writer, I am not sure if Aberdeen Angus is a protected name under European legislation, like Melton Mowbray pork pies for instance. I will find out, it certainly ought to be.

I think it’s “Scotch” or Scottish Beef, as a geographical distinction, that needs the protected status and I should be surprised if it wasn’t already designated. To protect “Aberdeen Angus” in the same way might limit the rearing of the cattle to the historical counties of Aberdeenshire and Angus. I am sure there are numerous excellent Aberdeen Angus herds in England as well as very large numbers in the USA and elsewhere, and indeed it might even be considered that the meat from some of the non-Scottish animals is superior [Americans would certainly agree]. Referring back to the first post in this Conversation, there is nothing wrong with importing Aberdeen Angus meat-based products from Argentina so long as the packaging does not mislead and that is where Renniemac has a point; the country of origin of the product is often minimised or side-lined with a view to tempting the consumer to buy the burger or choose the sausages in the belief that the meat is Scottish. The major supermarkets sem to have no diffculty in lining up their wine bottles geographically and categorising them accordingly, so why can’t they do it with other products where provenance is critical to consumer satisfaction?

I understand there are compulsory labelling regulations for beef (and veal) that require the packaging to show: country of birth, country of rearing, country of slaughter and country of cutting – or if all are the same country, then country of origin. I like to support British products, both for nationalistic reasons and pragmatic ones – if I have a complaint I am closer to the necessary authorities. However, we have seen scandals in some of our UK wholesale food producers reseeling condemned meat for example and the substitution of ingredients, so I don’t trust home-grown producers just because they are British.

I believe that as food retailers and caterers are the last link in the chain before us, these are the people at which the strict enforcement should be aimed, to make sure they use procurement and quality control in a responsible way – and to heavily penalise those who don’t. Food fraud and crime should be seen not to pay.

Well Friesians are a breed of cattle, just like Jerseys are a breed of cattle. You don’t expect beef from these to have come from the Netherlands or Jersey. likewise with Aberdeen Angus: it’s a breed, not a geographic indicator.

Dragonqween says:
21 January 2014

No, it hasn’t made any difference to what I buy or meat I choose. If it has horsemeat in the product I don’t mind – as long as it is labelled correctly – that way I can make my own mind up whether I buy it or not.

The best way to ensure you have somewhere to go if the meat you are sold is not acceptable is your local butcher! If you don’t have a local butcher, only supermarkets, buy meat online from a British supplier.

Josephine, I’d be interested to hear the argument supporting what you say. In my view, a “quality” supermarket or national food retailer has the resources to control the buying and quality of its products, and more direct control over its suppliers. So they should be a reliable source. Where some have fallen down is in the sourcing of products to feed the cheap processed food market. Whilst supporting your local butcher is worthwhile, they are subject to less stringent labelling regulations, and presumably can still be be misled by unscrupulous sources. Online meat suppliers? Why are they not susceptible to fraud? Why are the latter two sources free from any dishonest practices?

Very simple. An individual butcher has far fewer people working on his/her supply chain, a supermarket has hundreds of people and is most likely to cut corners and source products wherever they can get them the cheapest. In the smaller quantities that an individual butcher works in, it is not even economical for him/her to buy in 1,000 carcasses from, say, Romania. Ask your local butcher, he/she is the expert.

I am afraid I cannot agree with you about local butchers always being more reliable than major retailers. There are many excellent local independent butchers who buy their meat from local graziers and make all their pies and burgers themselves or within very close association. I have also seen meat and meat products delivered to “local butchers” in cardboard boxes from a large-scale meat-wholesaling company. While it is possible for the best local butchers to know the source of every portion of meat they sell and to know which herd it came from, it is also entirely possible for local butchers to be entirely ignorant of the origin of their meat and meat-based products if they are buying them in from an intermediate supplier that in turn is collecting from various abbatoirs and processors. Obviously, it would be extremely unlikely that a farmer who only has bovine herds would be able to introduce horsemeat into his deliveries to the local butcher, but living in a a rural area with a large amount of equestrian activity as I do, I would not entirely exclude the possibility. As has already been said, the problem is not really with fresh meat cut from the carcass – a competent butcher can recognise the animal from the bone structure, texture and musculature; the mix up occurs with meat that has been shredded and minced and mixed with other material and reformed into other products so that its origin is not easily revealed.

We cannot always be sure that the meat supplied by a local farmer is of the very best quality just because it is local; the chances are that it is very good otherwise it would not have been selected for sale by an excellent local butcher with a reputation at stake [or steak, even]. But this is not guaranteed through a thorough inspection and testing regime of the kind employed by the leading major supermarkets, and there is always the possibility that the close interdependency of a local butcher and his local livestock farmer could, possibly, undermine an objective approach to the examination of the product – indeed, supplies can be taken on trust without sufficient scrutiny. I think it is totally wrong to castigate all supermarkets and proclaim that all local butchers are at the top of their profession. Perhaps you have good butchers’ shops on your doorstep, but a very large proportion of the population no longer have this alternative and have to rely on a supermarket. Even where good butchers exist, many customers cannot fit their buying times around the butcher’s times of trade. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, a very significant percentage of the community cannot afford butcher’s shop prices for burgers and pies, let alone prime cuts of meat. I think we have a duty to give credit to the leading supermarkets for the good work that they have done and the improvements they have made in the sourcing of meat, especially for processed products, because for many people they are the only affordable source and for so many UK farmers they are the only available outlet.The big retailers must continue to maintain the high standards and be much more rigorous in the examination and labelling of contents, and those that let us down so badly must demonstrate conclusively that they have changed their ways permanently. For this, and to protect the public at every point of contact with the meat industry, we need a strong food standards authority with effective enforcement resources to exert maximum vigilance.

Josephine – I don’t go for this “very simple” argument. In the majority of cases I am sure a local butcher will source meat carefully. However, they still buy from abbatoirs and meat distributors presumably, and may be misled by them. Those (no doubt a small minority) who are less than honest still have the potential to sell out-of-date product. They can still make meat products (pies, sausages) from ingredients that are not of the right quality. There are chains of “locaI butchers” that can be susceptible to poor practice, particularly when price is important . It simply is not at all “very simple”.
So much of this requires trust in your supplier’s integrity, their ability to properly monitor their suppliers and access to facilities to check quality as a routine. I do not see how you can group all butchers and online sellers under the “faultless” category.

Butchers are carefully trained and have expertise in what they do, the same may be true of some supermarkets (such as Morrisons) but that is only at the consumer interface. You have no idea what goes on higher up the food chain whereas you can ask your butcher face-to-face. I suggest you contact the Worshipful Company of Butchers (www.butchershall.com) for more information.

You seem to suggest that supermarkets cannot be relied upon, in general, to supply meat – whether prepacked or loose – that has been either sourced correctly or butchered properly. This seems an extraordinary assertion.

We shouldn’t forget that a proportion of the suspicious meat products ended up in the catering trrade where the procurement expertise is unlikely to be up to the same standard as that of the supermarkets and where product descriptions are notorious for their economy with the truth. There’s still a lot to be learned by this sector I feel and more supervision and testing is required.

renniemac says:
21 January 2014

in referring to Aberdeen Angus beef it is considered a better quality meat and as such commands a higher price. it is a Scottish Breed and one which we are proud of, but why! do the supermarkets put Aberdeen Angus in emblazoned letters to draw the consumer in. where is the Brazilian or Argentinian flag on the front of the product, why is the writing so small at the back that it can be easily missed. when I buy Aberdeen Angus steaks or joint I want it to be from Scotland. just as I want my North Atlantic mussels to be from the North Atlantic, just as I want my clotted cream from Devon.
it must say in a clear and understood language where the product is from. and on the front please.
We must protect our local farmers and growers, they need us to support and buy from here first.
the supermarkets are not doing this, animal husbandry has suffered for the sake of giving the supermarkets cheap! cheap! cheap products. supermarkets were the cause of battery hens/pigs and such, but then should our farmers not have said No!
are we too eager to please the wholesale purchasers. are we not all to blame for the meat scandal by allowing supermarkets to reign supreme.
It’s time the customer spoke out.

In answer to the long diatribe, butchering skills are being lost because most supermarkets do not have butchers’ counters and just sell meat in packages. Furthermore, we need to support small, local businesses (of all kinds) or our high streets will disappear. Already, you cannot tell if you are in Birmingham, Bristol or Barnet, the shops are all the same. I always try and buy meat from local butchers, I know what I am getting and where it is from.

Josephine, having your views challenged by other valid opinions does not amount to “diatribe”. Your argument seems to be that supporting high street butchers should be our priority. If they offer good products and service then they will be used. I agree that local skills are important – it is up to local businesses to offer customers something they cannot get elsewhere and to market their advantages to retain our business. No one owes anyone a living – effort is required. However, you cannot turn the clock back; many will use supermarkets for meat and meat products because they include them in a weekly shop and, presumably, trust them to offer quality.
I do not support the argument that we keep shops in business irrespective of cost or value – they need to offer something we want to justify survival. This may well not be about cost, but service, advice, variety and quality of product, for example – they need to offer something to attract our custom that we cannot get from supermarkets.

We also need convenient access to these high streets – expensive or remote parking is a deterrent that local authorities should be dealing with.

The top priority is that meat is safe to eat, whether sourced from a small butcher or giant supermarket. It is also illegal to use false description, for example selling horse meat as beef.

We can all choose where we shop, taking into account price, retailer, animal husbandry, quality of animals and butchering, country of origin, etc. No-one should have concerns about the safety of meat, wherever they choose to shop.

As with all products your best guarantees of safe food including the expected ingredients are robust supplier quality control, suppliers anxious to maintain their reputations and appropriate penalties for failure. This depends heavily upon the retailers integrity – a government policing system could simply not have the resources to monitor all food (it is not just meat that is affected by fraud and adulteration) but they can be more rigorous in imposing fines and adverse publicity. What happened after the horse meat debacle – who was penalised?
So how to choose your shop if you are concerned about food quality? Perhaps local authorities should publish routinely failures for local shops and caterers, and the FSA should publish results for the major retailers and hospitality chains. Then use your own experience.

LordElpus says:
24 January 2014

During the Horsemeat scandal/crisis. I, as a smug – very smug – lifelong Vegetarian, got a sore throat telling all my carnivore friends and acquaintances ‘I told you so’. Those that are still eating meat now very careful now reading labels and verifying origins of the dead animal products they are buying.

I thought the major problem during the horsemeat hoo-ha was that reading the labels didn’t reveal the truth. I’m not sure whether anybody suffered any harm as a result of eating processed meat products containing horsemeat instead of beef, or even whether anybody actually tasted any difference. Nevertheless, there was the potential for harm because the standards for beef production are [nowadays] higher than for horsemeat which is not expected to enter the food-chain in the UK. Sourcing it from strange foreign places made traceability and quality assurance more of an issue. While consumers might not have known what they were eating, the scandal was that the retailers didn’t know what they were selling. We have to hope that lesson has now been learned but we still need an effective monitoring body independent of the meat production industry.

If I buy meat and meat products from, say, M&S or Waitrose, I expect them to have the facilities and wish to buy from sources they properly choose and monitor and use appropriate quality control. I would be disappointed to find to the contrary (excepting that genuine, but rare, mistakes will always happen). At present that is one of our routes to decent food – through confidence in the supplier. As you hint, this is not about horsemeat, but content of food in general – Dobbin was just one example of food fraud. I have eaten horsemeat, and very nice it is. I would eat it again, as long as it says what it is. Wilful negligence or dishonesty in the food industry needs very heavy penalties.

Mr Ed says:
24 January 2014

Has the horsemeat scandal changed my shopping habits? Neigh!

Thank you Mister Ed. I wonder what Wilbur would say on the subject.

Anne Jamie says:
26 January 2014

The horse meat scandal confirmed our suspicions about the food industry, and encouraged us to spend six months researching the subject. Our conclusions have been that diseases of affluence are prevalent in, surprise, affluent countries. Where populations eat little or no animal produce, there is little, or no incidence of heart disease, cancer, auto immune diseases, etc. The documentary, Forks over Knives, convinced us to read The China Study, by T Colin Campbell, and the journey of discovery began.
The question of saturated fats (mostly found in animal products), led on to trans fats. Why do these not have to be labelled? The American Heart Association states that a maximum of 1% of daily diet should consist of trans fats, while the American Academy of Science suggest that the upper tolerable intake is zero.
There is nothing on food product labels to indicate the amount of these dangerous fats in a product. Why?
So, yes, the horsemeat scandal changed our buying habits and our eating habits.
And, incidentally, we have both lost two stone, while eating as much as we want, but of the “right” food.

Trans-fats are produced when vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to convert them from liquids to soft solids. When butter was in short supply, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was used in margarine. When it became clear that trans-fats can increase the chance of developing coronary heart disease, the food industry responded surprisingly quickly and removed hydrogenated vegetable oil from products. Trans-fats would not be labelled as such, but as partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil. Interestingly, fully hydrogenated vegetable oil does not contain trans-fats – it is a saturated fat.

I have not seen partially hydrogenated vegetable oil listed in the ingredients of any food in the UK for years, though I believe that it is still used in some countries.

I assume that the American Academy of Science is referring to added trans-fat because some foods, notably meat and dairy products, do contain naturally occurring trans-fats, albeit in small amounts.

Eating little is known to be healthy, as is eating a diet that is low in meat, not containing trans fats, etc. There is nothing new in this. The horsemeat scare showed that the regulatory authorities are not doing their job, that supermarkets are too powerful and can get round the regulations and it is healthier to know exactly what you are buying. I try and buy all fruit and veg from the market and meat from a butcher, but I realise that not everyone has access to these facilities, especially now that the supermarkets have taken over from local shops.