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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 don’t eat much red meat including pork
anyway…. seems a good time to make good
any protein deficiency by recourse to fresh
poultry, fish including the oily variety, tofu and more
pulses and veg AND no processed meats of any
kind, of course. Pulses are rich in protein.

When on holiday abroad, however, may
make exceptions but that is more in the way
of a treat or indulgence not otherwise.

A key point that almost all commentators I’ve read and heard on this issue miss, is what counts as meat.

By law, almost any part of an animal is legally ‘meat’, although the public perception is that meat is ‘muscle-meat-but-not-heart-and-a-bit-of-fat. I’ve quizzed a lot of people, and found that that’s the commonest view in my area on England. So people who buy pork sausages have an expectation that only muscle and fat is in them, although this is rarely true and not required to be so. Argonaut’s comment shows this attitude clearly.

Watch a wild carnivore eating. Most of the carcass is consumed, often including hide and bones. And this is safe and healthy. So sausages and burgers made from ‘junk’, as it’s called, are really more like natural meat eating than eating prime chops – and healthier, because meat roughage is a useful part of a good diet.

Maybe we should get back to our origins in our meat-eating, yet even those Paleo diets don’t suggest eating meat the way our healthy (as they claim) ancestors did!

Hmmm. I don’t think our ancestors had much mechanically-recovered meat in their diets, or preservatives such as sulphites, nitrates and nitrites. Sulphites such as sodium metabisulphite can cause allergic reactions and I am one of those affected. When I was a teenager I learned that nitrites are converted to nitrosamines, which are carcinogens. I am certainly not opposed to food preservatives because a they help prevent growth of certain very dangerous bacteria. (Not all bacteria are harmful and some provide an essential role in our gut.) Have a look at what is in your sausages. Many include sulphites but even some Waitrose sausages still contain nitrates and nitrites.

I don’t doubt that meat roughage is a useful part of the diet, David, but I am not going to buy sausages and burgers. I will stick to meat that looks like meat. I don’t need to eat much or eat it every day.

I agree with you, wavechange, about the sophisticated additives and inadvertant pollutants we still get in our processed meat products, even after the cleanup of the last decade. Like growth hormones and flavour-enhancers. But some of the additives are of little health consequence and are thousands of years old in their usage.

One of those is the mineral salts which were found useful to preserve hunters’ meats for journeys, and nitrites (from ancient seabed deposits) rank right up there with common salt. So do some strong herbs which are still used to flavour sausages (sage, for example, or juniper). The carcinogen issue only comes up here if you ingest a LOT of nitrites and it’s arguable that common rock or sea salt ranks way worse than nitrites for health issues.

If you don’t eat your meat fresh and warm from the killing, preservatives play a valuable part in avoiding infection. Ask any undertaker how long it takes a warm body to rot!

Sorry that you’re affected by sulphites; they’re generally the safe alternative to the benzoates which are mood-changing (hyperactivity and ADHD) in a large proportion of young people.

Thanks for some interesting feedback, David. I have recently started to learn about the scientific basis of historic and modern use of plants, particularly as antimicrobials.

It worries me that so many people do not differentiate between types of food additives, regarding preservatives as unimportant as food colours, for example. Many seem to think that cooking food will make it safe, oblivious to the fact that it may contain heat-stable exotoxins, even if bacteria and other microorganisms have been killed in the cooking process.

I take your point about the amount of nitrite being important, and accept that they are approved for food use, but I doubt that they would be allowed if a company tried to introduce them as new additives.

Prompt refrigeration and processing, and hygienic conditions handling meat from the carcass to the consumer has achieved a great deal. As you say, fresh meat can spoil remarkably quickly.

As far as food additives that can cause hyperactivity, I was wondering if this might be a solution to my lethargy during the miserable weather since Christmas. 🙂

I would not mind trying horse meat as long as it has gone through all the safety checks.

Phil says:
13 March 2013

I don’t eat much red meat and never buy ready meals. As Which? has exposed time and again they contain high levels of salt and low levels of any quality ingredients. They’re also expensive for what they are.

So in a word no, the horsemeat scandal hasn’t affected my shopping habits.

I never had that much trust in the food industry. I prefer buying local products, and proper meat over mince. I have always been aware that mince meat contains all the waste products from the meat industry, and I don’t really think that it makes a massive difference if some of the gristle, skin, tendons, fat, udders and such originally came from a horse before it was violently mashed up beyond recognition in massive industrial machinery, but if it makes people think more about what they eat and buy, and where they buy it from, then I think that’s a good thing 🙂

I very much agree. I have never bought supermarket mince or sausages, though I did occasionally buy mince when there was a local butcher that I trusted. I buy better quality meat, but probably much less than most people.

I had hoped that the BSE scare would make us a little more careful about what we eat, but there is still a lot of junk gets into food. I cannot see the horse meat scandal having a lasting effect, especially with food prices rising.

I’m not suggesting that we all become vegetarians, but there are some good reasons why we many of those in the western world should cut down on the amount of meat we eat. The fewer animals we slaughter for food the better.

I thought that after the BSE scare all meat had to have a proper certification of exactly where it came from and its life history from birth to oven. Obviously not; or that idea has been quietly shelved.

Karl says:
20 March 2013

I occasionally eat ready meals but do cook most nights so that I know I’m getting good value healthy(er) food. My point is that if people want to eat “ready meals” (and i support people who often rely on them when there is no-one there to safely support them to cook) should be able to buy and eat with confidence what it states it should be on the pack! I have always wanted to try horse (it is popular on the continent) but not when it should be a beef burger! The food industry needs a big overhaul and the government needs to enforce it better!

Pierre says:
13 March 2013

I grew up on the continent, where “horsemeat” was standard at the butcher shops and generally widely available and safe. Although some Restaurants specialised in preparing it, most did not advertise it, thus one always had a choice. In France, some of the specialised Restaurants gained their high reputation on that meat….

However, there is a difference between what is distinctly specially labelled, cleanly safely prepared meat for the consumption of humans at the table, as against that which should never have found its way (containing a variety of chemicals, enzymes and goodnes knows what else as the sourcing was dubious or has been found to be that way) into our chain of foods under any guise, disguise, shape or form. The U.K. is simply not a country akin to the consumption of “horsemeat” (albeit for the few Restaurants who promote it, who uphold the prescribed standards and ethics that go with it) making the situation which was discovered in the context the more distateful and abject. The originators, wherever and whoever they are should be prosecuted.

Simon says:
13 March 2013

Processed food is not designed to be good for you, it’s packed with rubbish and exists to make profit for big companies. My recommendation is to keep your food simple, and make or source as much of it fresh as you can.

I stopped eating meat about 7 years ago when my wife and kids (who were 5 and 3) decided they didn’t want to eat animals. I thought I’d miss it it but haven’t at all.

Thanks to a good diet – especially fresh fruit & veg – and plenty of exercise I’m now slimmer, fitter and healthier at 46 than ever. You really do not need meat in your diet to be healthy (or vitamin/protein supplements etc).

pmunc6 says:
13 March 2013

I don’t, as a rule, eat processed foods as I like to see what I am eating as opposed to having to read the contents of a meal on the back of a packet most of which is gibberish to me anyway. However, my grandsons, who thankfully visit me often, are not happy that I no longer ‘treat’ them to McD’s – I have always felt really bad when buying this rubbish as I was sure that it was not good for them, since the horsemeat scare which they are both old enough to be aware of, I will NOT be swayed by their protests. They are not visiting as often but I am sure they will come round soon – hope!

Carole Noble says:
13 March 2013

I have definitely had my shopping habits changed since the scandal. I decided that I should shop as my mum did for us butchers/bakers & green grocer that way I was being very sure about what I was buying and the standards. I still shop in the supermarket for tinned goods etc but I’ve gone back to basics for meat fish veg and bread and I must admit I like it better and I feel more reassured that I’m buying what it says on the label

This is not just about horsemeat, it is about certain food retailers not knowing the content of the products they buy in and sell. Horsemeat now discovered – probably not bad for you, but what else lurks in these processed food products that some of the retailers don’t know about – because they are clearly not in proper control of their supply chain.
Product should be labelled with the contents, and suppliers, manufacturers and retailers should be heavily penalised if the product does not comply. That will perhaps force retailers and manufacturers to take proper control of their products and their suppliers. It does leave smaller retailers in some difficulty as they will not have the resources to check their products directly, but they are responsible for what the buy in and sell to us. So it is their problem to resolve – maybe through their wholesaler. It is no different to retailing electrical goods where the CE Mark is supposed to provide consumer protection.
We have shopped at M&S and Waitrose, and as it happens not bought proprietary processed food, generally stuck with own label. We had more faith in these retailers supplying quality foods, and so far it seems they have not had a problem. So our shopping habits have not changed. Fingers crossed. Had some nice Aberdeen Angus beef sausage last night.

Glynnis Newboult says:
14 March 2013

As a vegetarian, who is always being ridiculed about my so-called ‘fads’ and faddy eating, I buy raw foods, NO MEAT, and cook everything myself. It tastes much better, is also fresher and healthier. Where possible I try to grow my own vegetables and salads, and I have always washed the foods well when purchased. I have never liked the idea of others cooking my meals for me as I am unsure about the hygiene, especially when eating out, so I haven’t changed my eating habits, at least not much.

Jenny says:
14 March 2013

No have not changed my habits. Shop at Waitrose who use english sourced products and even withdrew a meal because of traces of pork from a single run because of customers for whom pork is not permitted. They also sent a message of apology by email

Muslims are paranoic about having absolutely
no traces of pork in their food.

Muslims – and Jews – are forbidden to eat pork as well as many other (but unusual) foods. Hindus are forbidden to eat beef. So it’s being faithful to their religion, rather than ‘paranoic’ to avoid these foods. Maybe the rest of us are ‘paranoic’ about not wanting female hormones, mercury or radioactive waste in OUR food? Or maybe not.

R.Sole says:
14 March 2013

My habits have not changed as I tend to buy most meat products from a butcher. The only meat i would buy from supermarkets is chicken. The recent horse-meat scandal is proof that fresh, local meats are indeed what they say they are.

Rosie38 says:
14 March 2013

Personally, I’m not over concerned with the miniscule amounts already found by the latest testing & I will continue to eat beef.
However, it concerns me if people are allergic to certain types of meat (horse & pig) it could cause a severe reaction

Pierre raises the point of safety above. If unscrupulous people are prepared to substitute horse meat for beef, it seems very unlikely that the horse meat is from healthy animals and been through the appropriate tests to ensure it is safe to eat.

It’s quite right that those who are putting illegal meats into the ‘cheap meat’ chain won’t be too fussy about hygiene, drugs, etc. But until recently, DNA testing for a different meat to that specified was so expensive that it was rarely used, and in mixed mashed meat products it was previously almost impossible to check. But in this case, the horse meat was probably fine.

I understand that most of the horse was (this time) sourced from Romania, where recent banning of draught horses from main highways led to a rapid slaughter of healthy horses which were suddenly a liability to their owners. And a scam in Ireland and Northern England led – separately – to Irish horses being used, with forged documentation, for human food (‘beef’) rather than animal feed. Apart from traces of a painkiller, which were minute and harmless, there was no health issue even after almost paranoid searching. Horse is a prime meat in most of Europe (but not the British Isles, hence the relabelling scam) so horse is in general simply one of many sources of cheap meat products. It was these two unusual events which, together with the Irish authorities’ vigilance, has led to the illegal practices being perpetrated – because of a horse meat glut – and then uncovered.

That’s good news, David. I don’t know why the people who substituted horse meat for beef did not sell the meat as horse meat, as a premium product, alongside venison etc.

Although the horse meat was from healthy animals and not full of drugs, I wonder if it went through the full safety checks.

I’m sure it was sold as horsemeat, wavechange, but that’s a limited market and the best of those extra carcasses would soon saturate the demand (and so affect the price). So I heard that some Eastern European entrepreneur has a warehouse with half a million tons of frozen horsemeat, all legal. And he’ll wait for the price to rise again before it gets out! Such stockpiles of various foods are much more common than we’d think, most of them connected with speculation on the Futures markets.

I’m sure that with both the Irish horsemeat masquerading as beef in Northern English abattoirs and the Romanian meat going into Polish factories, the usual hygiene regulations would be followed once the dodgily-sourced carcasses were in a legitimate food chain. They don’t want to be shut down by an eagle-eyed inspector!

Food labelling in the single market ought to be strictly enforced by national authorities as it is in fact a European issue. Why should people be worried by horse meat, which from all accounts the british burger may have contained together with mechanically recovered “meat”? Consumers may have been undergoing such ‘wholesome nourishment’ for years? Are there any adverse signs yet in the population? Quite another matter was putting 144 000 affected beef carcasses in the food chain when BSE was rife! While there is apparently no problem with a sanitary inspected equine component of meat from a health ground, the fact is that someone somewhere is “cleverly” substituting ingredients based on the current market price differential of meat. The worry is not that “it contains horse” but what else have these criminal clever clogs added and concealed from identification in our consumer products? According to the praxis, messing about with our food is also a matter for the consumer: if you pay peanuts you may also get monkeys. Cheap is not necessarily what you will want to eat. Those of us aware of the meat trade – and the added value jungle – know only too well how easy it is to beat the system and take advantage of consumers who go on price, appearance and faith for their “processed mush”. Buy what you can recognize: whether it be rabbit, donkey, veal, lamb, horse, mutton, beef, swine or fowl. Do not be afraid to pay a sustainable price for genuine products. I personally avoid supermarket food buying, for their relentless pursuit of cutting costs and the logical outcome of that philosophy Critical enforcement of standards is essential here.

Being vegetarian, I am pleased that people are eating less, or no meat!

Mr Henry Cooper says:
14 March 2013

The only concern I have about horse meat, is whether the animal was injected with chemicals dangerous to human consumers. Horse meat is generally supposed to be good to eat.

Marcella Hickson says:
14 March 2013

I haven’t changed my food buying since the recent horsemeat scandal as I have always bought my meat from the butcher, fish from the fishmonger and fruit and veg from the green grocer – I buy local and always know the source of my food. I never buy ready meals due to the high volume of sodium and potassium in them. My food bill is way lower than my friends. If you choose to buy cheap ready meals then are you really surprised that the content is not high quality ??? You are kidding yourselves if you are surprised about the contents of them !!!

I envy Marcella the option of being able to buy from independent shops – I would if I could, but the nearest ones from where I live are about 15 miles away, so the supermarkets get most of my custom, unfortunately.

RetiredOldGit says:
15 March 2013

Since our son and daughter decided unilaterally that they would be vegetarians in 1979, we adapted to a vegetarian diet. We had to! We are all (hopefully) hale and hearty. My wife is nearly 65, and her life is a never-ending round of Theatre, Gym, walks with the neighbour’s dog etc. I just go to the pub with the crossword. Mad cow disease? Forget it. So there are foul things in the pink slime they force you to buy? Forget it. Being a vegetarian is a healthier and cheaper option. So speaks a (former) dedicated devourer of meat.

L Porter says:
15 March 2013

The only meat products we buy are steak mince and sausages (from our trusted local butcher) and also cat food. Otherwise we buy joints and whole chickens.

My children’s local schools dinners were checked and cleared of having horsemeat in them in the past.

This hasnt effected us at all.

Sarah M says:
15 March 2013

Buy local not supermarket meat and if you live in a city use the internet to order from our farm shops

Interesting comments but no politician who wants to stay in his/her party will push for any food law as all parties are in the pay of the very rich food companies and the mega rich. Who don’t buy their food at the same outlets as the tax payers of this country?