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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.


I’m surprised that everyone seems to have forgotten BSE so quickly. I thought that after the BSE crisis, traceability regulations were introduced with the aim of ensuring that potentially infected beef did not get into the food chain. If it’s so easy for meat that isn’t even beef to get into products labelled as beef, how can we be sure that the beef that actually is beef isn’t infected beef?

I think you have put your finger on the nub of the problem. Because of the tightening-up of the controls over livestock husbandry there has been an increase in the cost of beef production. Under pressure from those supermarkets whose marketing strategy is based mainly on price the manufacturers of processed beef products like burgers, lasagne, and so on, had resorted to procuring meat from less diligent suppliers [or, indeed, outright rogues] who were hoping that the buyers would not notice the inclusion of other meat. Those food retailers [like Iceland and certain others] that obviously did not have adequate inspection and testing arrangements in place, possibly also to save expense, eventually got found out, but more by chance than design unfortunately. To answer Jenny’s question, I don’t think we can be entirely assured that all the beef in beef products is fit for human consumption; as Malcolm said earlier, buying from those retailers that are known to have invested heavily in food safety at every step of the food chain is the only way to be reasonably sure. And as Josephine says, trusted local butchers buying from known and trusted sources could also provide the same degree of reassurance; their whole family livelihood depends on it. For families on tight budgets neither of these options might be affordable so tough regulation is still required. Suggesting that we can all do our meat shopping at M&S, Waitrose and the local butcher’s [if there is one] possibly allows the government to ease back on food safety.

nbrentnall says:
27 January 2014

Sure, this horsemeat fiasco has changed the way I shop…steer clear of supermarket meat: the odd ‘extra’ ingredient perhaps falls in line with their profit margins..i.e. ‘every little bit helps’ !!!
Perhaps the only one I would trust is Morrisons that do have there own dedicated supply chain and slaughterhouses.
Otherwise support your local butcher and farm shop !!

There has been no suggestion that any butchered meat sold in cuts, chops, joints, etc has been affected. The problem seems to be with meat that has been shredded, sometimes mixed with material from parts of the animal not normally sold in a butcher’s shop, and reformed into other products like burgers. It was found possible to introduce low percentages of non-bovine ingredients into these products without altering the characteristics enough to draw attention to it and these alternative ingredients were not declared. I think only advanced laboratory testing would be able to detect such adulteration and only examining a large number of samples would expose the extent of it. In cutting out the inclusion of horsemeat – we trust – through (a) improved testing and controls, and (b) an overhaul of sourcing and procurement, I hope it has deterred any attempts to make other substitutions.

As Wavechange said above about trans-fats, the food industry does react quickly to problems as it has to restore confidence. Personally I do not share the widespread distrust of our major retailers, in fact in some ways I feel better protected by them, and I think our farmers will feel more secure if the big buyers and meat processors are less inclined to look abroad for supplies.

John, “butchered meat sold in cuts, chops, joints, etc.” HAS been affected. The first signs of this scandal was an Irish TSO report that Irish horse carcasses were being sent to northern England relabelled (and re-certificated) as Irish beef. That is now going through due legal process – but it’s very likely that some of that horsemeat would have found its way into supermarkets and butchers’ shops as beef. Not as a whole carcass, I hope,(any competent butcher should have been able to spot the difference), but as joints and cuts from a commercial production line, where less-skilled workers would be trained to do basic parts of the full butchery process and not seen the full picture.

Obviously, if the cut of meat looks more like a horse than beef or lamb, it is suspicious, and only ground, processed and “reformed”meat can be used in such cases. A piece of steak, for instance, is more problematic. I have not noticed any big change in the food industry over here with respect to trans fats, in the USA the food industry reacts instantly to any food scare.

This is getting off the horsemeat issue perhaps, but do you think that trans-fats in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil are still being used in food products in the UK? Wavechange [above] believes not and I tend to think he is right.

Yes, John it’s perfectly legal – a scandal, considering the current medical evidence. It appears most in commercial products that the public doesn’t meet directly. My local chipper, for example, uses ‘partly-hydrogenated vegetable oil’ (as it says on the 20-litre can) which is likely to be 20%-30% trans-fat. They choose this oil because they’re sure that it fries better than, for example, rapeseed oil – which is, they say, a little cheaper and which is the healthiest oil in common use (it has 12% Omega-3 in it).

In the USA, as mentioned above, retail products have to be labelled with trans-fat content. The problem there is that their rules (decided by a manufacturer-stuffed committee) allow under 1% to be called zero. So a product with a small fat content (say, a pancake mix) can be made using the worst partially-hydrogenated oils while not declaring that fact. I found this in San Diego a couple of years ago. And the commercial margarine available in the same hostel was unashamedly made with partially-hydrogenated cottonseed oil – the retail rules did not apply and there was no need to declare trans-fat content. Here in the UK, the rules are just as lax, though public pressure has removed trans-fats from nearly all supermarket margarines (now cunningly relabelled as ‘spreads’).

By the way, trans-fats are not always a problem. For example, milk fat (ie, in cream, butter and cheese) is about 4% natural trans-vaccenic acid, which has never been found to be unsafe and may even be especially beneficial, according to one trial. It’s the artificial trans-fats made by partial hydrogenation of polyunsaturated oils that are the recognized killers. Even full hydrogenation is not a health hazard – it’s the safe way to turn polyunsaturates into full saturates, to be blended with other oils to make, say, baking fat. As consumers, our problem in the UK is that all this rarely appears on the label.

And it should.

I have not bought or eaten anything with minced meat (bolognaise, burger, meatballs, cottage pie, mexican, etc) or man made meat such as sausage, pepperoni, meat pizas since the horsemeat scandal. I wouldn’t be surprised if British manufacturers are still using this and any other animals they can use.

wayne says:
29 January 2014

if god didn’t want us to eat them she wouldn’t have made them out of meat!

Quite true. This “scandal” was not only about horsemeat, but about, firstly, dishonestly putting an undeclared ingredient in a product and secondly, it was an ingredient that also contained drugs. It could apply to contaminated cooking oil (remember those people poisoned), salmonella in eggs, animals fed on animal waste (as BSE), vegetables with pesticide residue, resale of condemned chicken meat, etc. It was fraud, and requires policing carefully to minimise it. However, dishonest traders will always find a way around the system. Fortunately it seems rare. My only safeguard is to be choosy where I buy or consume food, in the hope they are responsible in the sourcing of their products and proper control of their suppliers.