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Horsemeat scandal: has it changed your shopping habits?

Six in 10 people have changed their shopping habits

Shoppers have told us their trust in the food industry has dropped by a quarter since the horsemeat scandal broke. Has the episode made you think twice about the food you buy?

I don’t eat red meat but I do buy and prepare it for my three-year-old.  I like to know exactly what I’m eating and what I’m feeding my son. The thought of buying one food product and getting another has really knocked my confidence.

And I’m not alone. In our survey of 2,000 adults, almost one in three now buy less processed meat, and a quarter are buying fewer ready meals containing meat or even choosing vegetarian options. In all, six in 10 have changed their shopping habits since the horsemeat scandal.

Confidence in food safety has also taken a hit. Before the horsemeat scandal, nine in 10 felt confident when buying products in a supermarket, but this has now dropped to seven in 10. The scandal has highlighted the complexity of our food supply chain. It has also become apparent that changes to food surveillance and enforcement have led to weakened consumer protection.

Horsemeat in beef products

We’re calling on the government to take urgent steps to resolve the slack standards of the food industry. This involves: more surveillance that’s better coordinated, tougher enforcement, tighter legislation, improved country of origin labelling and for food labelling policy to be returned to the FSA.

It was during routine surveillance work by the Irish authorities that meat products contaminated with horsemeat were first identified. With food fraud surveillance work suffering from cuts in the UK, we need more intelligence-led and speculative surveillance where there’s a potential for cheaper ingredients to be substituted.

Knowing where your food’s from

Cuts to local authority budgets over the past few years have impacted trading standards and environmental health. Food labelling issues have become less of a priority, as they are seen as not having health consequences. There need to be clear disincentives for illegal practices, with tougher penalties for those prosecuted. Current proposals by the government to decriminalise failure to comply with food labelling legislation need to be scrapped.

We want the food industry to regularly check the authenticity of its products and improve traceability. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) needs to be given the power to require testing when necessary, to have access to and publish the results of food company testing, and to gain access to premises for the purpose of investigations.

Which? wants to see country of origin labelling extended to cover the meat in meat products. The government should abandon current proposals to drop national rules that require clear ingredient labelling for meat products that are sold loose (not pre-packed), as these provide valuable information to consumers. We also want to see better communication from the FSA to the public during a fast-moving food scare.

Food enforcement back under one roof

Since 2010, the FSA has dealt with enforcement while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) develops policy. Both elements used to be under the FSA, which has a remit to put consumers first. This scandal has shown that the split between Defra and the FSA causes unnecessary confusion and complication. We want all food labelling and standards responsibilities to be returned to the FSA.

What do you think needs to change to ensure the safety of your food and make sure you get the food you pay for? Will you be changing your shopping habits or the food you buy because of the horsemeat scandal?

Have you changed your shopping habits since the horsemeat scandal began?

No (63%, 860 Votes)

Yes (36%, 493 Votes)

I'm not sure (1%, 16 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,369

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I quite like horsemeat – which contains less saturated fats than beef.

I’d like to be able to buy it in this country – as I can, and do, in France. Though not from condemned race-horses that have been stuffed with ‘Bute’ and other carcinogenic drugs.

Why not just label it clearly, and let shoppers decide?

Lyn Western says:
2 April 2013

Regardless of whether horsemeat is being sold in this country, surely the fact is that it is a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act to describe a product as beef if it is not beef so this is an intent to deceive the buying public and should be dealt with appropriately.

As always it is people on a low budget forced to buy cheap food who are exploited but really it’s often much more cost-effective to buy meat from your local butcher and learn to cook the less expensive cuts and make delicious meals. Previous generations have always done this when there was little money about. There are enough cooking programmes on TV to tell you how to do it! You’ve got to realise that many food retailers are there simply to make a profit with little regard for quality. If they can get away with it they will!


Lyn,I agree with you that you don’t have to pay for expensive cuts of meat to make a delicious meal. A casserole is one of my favourites, as is a lamb hot pot; cheap cuts cooked slowly.
Where I don’t agree is that retailers have little regard for quality – some don’t seem to, or at least they have lost control of quality – hence horse meat (and what else?) – arrive in products without their knowledge. There are other retailers who do pay attention to quality – worth shopping there where there is still trust.


Malcolm, Lyn, I think you’re being a little cynical about the retailers – and so are most people. Terms like ‘exploited’ and ‘little regard’ mean that you think that all of the big retailers, who continually stress the pains they take to source even the cheapest foods as safely and reliably as possible, show that you think they’re blatantly lying.

This would be a stupid move on their part, as the penalties for being caught are so huge in money, in sales and in reputation. So they wouldn’t do it – it’s not worth the potential loss. Far from calling them out on this, the government officials have stressed that they see no health risk and began immediately looking far down the supply chain to find the scam. I don’t say that the supermarkets and big names couldn’t have been more vigilant, but that’s after an unusually careful Irish inspectorate, suspecting the Ireland-to-England horse carcass certificate scam that was eventually uncovered, went as far as to do the NEW DNA checks on carcasses. This prompted others to follow suit and the fact that horsemeat was in Eastern European mixed meat products became public here. This is completely legal; what wasn’t was the lack of ‘horsemeat’ on the labels provided by the UK factories that used this source, when the supermarkets commissioning them had already specifically asked that it wouldn’t be.

So where did that place a supermarket’s responsibilities five years ago, when the expensive DNA testing that was the only way to uncover this was only used in court cases and was available only from a few specialized labs? I don’t see them as culpable – until circumstance had clearly changed. And then they mostly did react very quickly.

It’s different now, of course. DNA testing is now much cheaper (though still costly) and many more labs have begun to tool up to provide the service, so random tests can become routine. But it’s hardly the supermarkets’ fault that they did what everyone thought then was enough checking. Legally, the retailer, not anyone in the supply chain, is responsible for any fault of anyone else – even if they couldn’t know that cheating was going on. But in truth, not in law, it’s the same situation as if you’re passed a very well forged banknote at a supermarket till, from a clip that’s come straight from their bank. If neither the bank teller and scanners, nor the supermarket cashier could spot the forgery, whose fault is it?


David, I have made the point before that by not being aware that the product some (major) retailers were buying contained horsemeat was down to them not being in control of the quality of the food they acquired from their suppliers. It was fraud that was perpetrated upon them in some cases, so their suppliers were in an untrustworthy supply chain. To me that is down to inadequate quality control. If they can unknowingly be sold products containing horsemeat, what might other products contain (unknown to them) that they buy from similar dishonest sources?
I have trust in certain other major retailers that I hope proves justified. That is not cynicism, it is a logical response to the facts in my view.
I do not understand your statement that product containing horsemeat is “completely legal” – it is not in products that are not meant to contain it, particularly when it’s quality is unknown. I would not object to buying horsemeat if properly labelled from a reputable source, assuming it to be have been properly slaughtered and inspected. Can we be sure the horsemeat sold fraudulently has been properly sourced? I don’t see why when the process in part may be criminal rather than genuine error; criminal suppliers would not necessarily have any regard for the supply of a wholesome product.


Malcolm, I do agree with you. It’s legal everywhere for human food to contain horsemeat – it just has to be declared, and musn’t be in a product that states that it’s solely something else, eg, beef. But burgers and sausages can say ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ on the label, as long as it’s made sufficiently clear that other meats are present. Look at most Hot Dog bottles and cans, and you’ll see how much chicken and turkey is in what traditionally was a pure pork food.

As far as criminal activity is concerned, I’m sure that you’re right. But sheer economics comes into this, too. This horsemeat scandal has come about because of a sudden glut of very cheap horse carcasses in Eastern Europe and some creative people spotted an illegal way to make a quick profit. Ordinarily, with horse being a premium meat, it wouldn’t be available so widely. As far as I can gather, the surplus horses in Romania would have been processed by local rules quite legally and to a good hygiene standard. It’s when the company two steps along the chain hides its provenance to sell the low-price mixed meat as a more expensive mixed meat for UK use that you get the crime. And until recently, it would have been undetectable except at huge cost.

Alwyn Wood says:
4 April 2013

Will anybody be examining what goes into the pet food we buy? Stock cubes, oxo etc?


There are regulations about pet food safety, and manufacturers must follow them. But remember, this conversation isn’t really about food safety – that never was an issue – but about labels that are fully disclosing of the contents and not misleading. And the rules about pet food are much more lax than those for human food.

Think, though. Just as for people, there’s no rule that says that what you buy to eat has to be good nutrition, just that it not be dangerous. As long as any claims on the packaging can be substantiated, no law is broken if you feed your animal junk. It was proven over 100 years ago (by Pavlov, to get a Nobel Prize) that dog, for example, digest mixed food poorly and are much better off eating meat quite separately from biscuit and other carbohydrates. More recently, it’s become known that chocolate is harmful to dogs. Yet makers still peddle ‘complete meal ‘ mixes for dogs; and owners still think chocolate is a dog treat!

The sad fact is that dogs, especially large ones, have a short life and the effects of bad diet are too little known for you to sue a maker whose dogfood is poor nutrition, yet claims otherwise. That’s why so many owners won’t feed their pets on manufactured foods.