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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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Provenance is everything . Tescos have announced that they will source all poultry from UK and Irish sources in future. What about Pork? Most UK and Irish farmers are complying with all EU food directives but news programmes tell us that many other countries do not. Pork farmers have suffered because of the refusal of so many consumers to pay for real food .
Hopefully this horsemeat scandal can switch the balance

The horsemeat fraud demonstrates exactly what happens when supermarkets squeeze suppliers to provide goods at uneconomic prices. The biggest surprise to me was the Co-op who are supposed to supply ethical and fair traded goods (and at a premium price) but this has shown they haven’t a clue where their meat comes from. Sorry but I expect this, in a way, from the likes of Tesco, Lidle and ASDA as some of their prices do seem impossible.

Many people wouldn’t be bothered at eating horses but they need to know and be given the choice. My suspicion is that a lot of the alien DNA found in products in in quite small quantities and due to different meats being processed in the same factory with poor hygiene – much as products say; ‘this product is processed in a factory which also processes nuts’.

Looking at safety. How can meat be safe when it is bought from a shady dealer in eastern Europe and traded through third parties and trailored all round Europe? The condition it is in would probably shock more than the horses and donkeys found in beef products.

What must the public learn? If they want quality, safe, food then it has a cost and they must pay for it. Four quarter ponders for 99p is obviously impossible if they are to be quality meat.

What should the government do? Ultimately they are responsible for enforcing content and labelling. It seems to me they are deliberately taking a back seat and playing down the scandal. Probably because some of them own shares in the companies involved or have other vested interests. I haven’t heard mention of one prosecution – much more important to the average person than Chris Huhne’s speeding points.

Finally, my wife switched to vegetarian some years ago and most of what we eat is quality vegetarian products. Not sure we are, or feel, any better for it, but, in theory, at least we know what we are eating (mainly micro-protein from fungi and soya, with added nuts). There’s little chance our Veggie Berger ran in the 2:30 at Cheltenham.

Chris R says:
15 March 2013

The old addage of ‘you get what you pay for’ is true. Why do supermarkets insist that food should be ‘cheap’? Think about the obscenely gross profits they make and ask yourself the question “How do they do it?”. At the cost of the original supplier (keeping prices down to below production costs) and by using “stuff” to make a little go a long way!!! Eat a properly cooked meal from scratch and then a ‘convenience’ or ‘deconstructed’ meal and compare the difference; the former would actually cost less in the long run and be more nutricious and filling – not full of water and fillers. To understand what they put on the label you would need a Phd-labelology for most of it! Go to local producers, farmers markets, local shops (if you can) – the time spent in sourcing fresh food is worth it. Supermarkets should be kicked into touch and into line as with other processed food manufacturers and label food correctly from inception to end product.

If I do not want to buy cereals/fruit/sweets from China/Americas or chicken from Poland, etc., then I should be able to make that decision by looking at the label.

I am vegetarian (thank goodness) but husband and elderly mother like their ‘meat and two veg’. I have not bought meat or processed meat/food from a supermarket for about 15 years; tending to use local organic producers for their meat. However, I am always extremely miffed at the lack of info on labels – this is my pet hate. Being a veggie for many years before it was more popular, taught me to always read labels – it was surprising how non-vegetarian food was passed off as ok for vegetarians.

Food labelling needs tighter control. There are many ingredients that do not have to be labelled at present. When buying products now, I have serious doubts: is ‘organic’ really so? is it really ‘non-GMO’? Is Greek olive oil really all Greek (!), virgin oil, first pressing? Recently in Germany there has been the scandal of thousands of eggs labelled ‘organic’ which were found to be not so. UK TV has done its best to tell us some of the scams that go on regarding food; some years ago it was revealed that dyed meat condemned for human consumption had been bleached and sold to restaurants; later we had the revolting ‘pink slime’ exposures. Consumers hesitated for a while, and then continued to eat as before. We now have mislabelled fish too, as people do not necessarily recognise certain types of fish they see in the fishmonger’s.
As for horse-meat, there are plenty of horses going to slaughterhouses in eastern Europe as these countries modernise; America is building horse slaughterhouses instead of sending their horses to be slaughtered in Canada for sale eventually to Europe. So I assume Europe will soon be awash in horse-meat and desperate to sell it, and I believe there is little legislation on the sale of horse-meat, which could have any kind of drug in it. Maybe if there was CCTV at every stage of an animal’s process from slaughterhouse onward we could be more certain of what is going on, but that needs incorruptible and brave inspectors (some years ago a Dutch or Belgian vet inspector was killed when he discovered some malpractice).
I am a vegan, but, yep, I still have worries about what is going on re food production and labelling. We can’t buy everything locally produced. I understand that some time in the future we will have bananas that have been sprayed with something to stop them from going brown; the spray is made from ground-up mussels or some such. So this will be an extra treat for those who buy packaged fruit and veg that has been gassed so that it will last longer on the shelves.

I don’t buy processed beef products but I do buy Supermarket beef and a few months ago, before all this current horsemeat controversy, I bought some beef labelled “Irish beef” which had a distinctly unusual flavour although I had prepared it in the usual way. It wasn’t disgusting but it wasn’t very nice either so we decided not to buy Irish beef again although having holidayed on a cattle farm in Ireland we know there is usually nothing wrong with Irish beef. When the horsemeat scandal broke we did wonder whether it was not just confined to processed beef.

The other day after watching “The Great British Menu” on BBC I looked up the judges on Wikipedia and discovered a comment from Oliver Peyton (an Irish restaurateur and food critic) to the effect that he would never buy Irish beef because it probably comes from Indonesia”!!!! What does that say about traceability?

Anna says:
19 March 2013

We don’t eat processed meat products, but about two years ago I bought fresh beef from Tesco in the 3 for £10 trays. I was suspicious as it didn’t smell like beef either in the tray or when it was cooking. It was so tough and tasteless that I didn’t chance buying tesco beef again. .

The issue here is about food adulteration – not whether you eat meat. Vegetarians (and therefore the rest of us too) are not immune from the fraud and the health risks that our appointed food safety regulators and extended supply chains are failing to keep on top of.

“Virgin” olive oil is routinely adulterated with cheaper oils. Thankfully, most are not hazardous to human health, but you are still not getting what it says on the label. So, no different to the horse meat scandal then.

There are cases of vegetable proteins sourced from China being mixed with melamine and other fillers that could end up in bread and pasta. Now Google “gutter oil”. Any smug focaccia eaters still left in the room?

It seems to be the case that food miles aren’t just bad for the environment – they can be bad for your health too.

Barry says:
18 March 2013

When is someone going to be prosecuted for this labelling fraud. Its all gone very quiet. Are the supermarkets putting pressure on government who hope this goes away. Time for all these crusading newspapers to turn up the heat and ensure that the Tesco’s etc are brought to account.

Or have they been bought off as well by their big advertisers.

I doubt if anyone will be prosecuted. Many years ago we kept laying hens commercially. One of our buyers resold our eggs as free range. Not true. We had two visits from officials from the town in which the deed had been undertaken and various statements taken. A total distance of about 120 miles for two persons,
Result, nothing was done about it.

As an addendum: I would urge those with strong stomachs to read (if I may mention this here) ‘Take Control of Your Health and Escape the Sickness Industry’ by Australian Elaine Hollingsworth (I do not know her), which was published last year. Quote: ‘Virtually everything you eat has been chemicalised somewhere along the line . . . thousands of chemicals are added to our foods . . .’ Reading textbooks on this subject ‘may be hazardous to your mental health, and can destroy any lingering faith or respect you may harbour for regulatory agencies, chemical companies, scientists and food processors . . . all governments have been more concerned with protecting industry than consumers. ‘ Whether your eating includes canned food, flours (all kinds), soft drinks . . . it’s all covered in this book. “Poring over labels in the supermarket is an exercise in futility . . .’ she says.

Some people make a living by writing sensationalist books and selling nutritional supplements, and Elaine Hollingsworth seems to be one of them. Believe what she has to say at your own risk.

I stopped eating meat years ago, when my daughters decided not to eat meat in their teens. I never liked eating meat as child but was made to eat it. I do eat eggs and some fish.
However, I feel for people who find the idea of eat a horse unpleasant and realize they have done so. People who have a religion forbiding eating pork again may have eaten pork without knowing.

Well, wavechange, at least the book is out there for all producers, manufacturers, processors, wholesalers retailers, and consumers, to criticise as they wish. I have looked at Hollingsworth’s website and see she is selling very little, and what there is can no doubt easily be checked for its wholesomeness and efficacy. No-one has to buy any of it, and it would probably be too expensive to purchase outside Australia anyway, as Australian postage can be costly. I think her book is positively modest, and less sensationalist-for-selling than the usual advertising and other promotions for the sale of food, health, or pharmaceutical products, that we see daily in/on our national media. Of course her subject IS sensational, as is the horse-meat/labelling fiasco: the latter is now exposed. What Hollingsworth has written about is mostly hidden, ie Not On The Label.

May I suggest that you look up the Quackwatch website to see how people like Hollingsworth set out to scare the public and make money out of them. From what I have read, she has absolutely no background in science or medicine. I am not happy with how our food is produced but scaremongers are not going to help deal with the problems.

Alternative thinking, sceptical, websites like these have their reasons and purposes, and in my opinion are just negative. We can always check such criticisms from all sources, weigh them up, and make up our own mind, just as we can with writers like Hollingsworth. Sceptics may enjoy their stand. Should they be sceptical about their scepticism? Nevertheless all views may provide useful insights and information. There have been people with no background in science or medicine throughout history who have revolutionised lives: inventors/discoverers just want to know and test – they have to start somewhere. There is a Chinese(?) proverb which says: ‘The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.’ Who was it who invented the wheel?

There are many examples of scoffers and sneerers for even those whom you would probably consider have a recognised background, such as Galileo (heliocentrism, arrested for life), Ford (the car), Tesla (eg air–conditioning – his principal scoffer was no less than Thomas Edison who called this ‘a foolish idea’), Semmelweiss (surgical hygiene, who was given hell by proudly dirty medics for ‘arrogantly’ concluding that puerperal fever was caused by their lack of hygiene – the cheek of the man!). Pasteur and Curie received nothing but scorn and ridicule to begin with. So it seems that even if you ARE recognised in the field in which you work, the scoffers have a field day and may not be proved wrong until well after they have died.

‘Scientific bias and vested interests in expert committees, industry and the military ensure that important evidence is not translated into policy but is suppressed, ignored or even rejected in favour of incorrect evidence, to the detriment of many millions of people’ said British scientist Christopher Busby, PhD – he has a website. For more on nutrition, check ‘The China Study’ by T Colin Campbell, PhD, which examines the relationship between the consumption of animal products and a variety of chronic illnesses, one of America’s best-selling books about nutrition. Also check out the non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They make a refreshing change to sceptical websites.

We have to take our information on nutrition where we can. Even today doctors get very little training on it. They take the Hippocratic oath, yet do not seem to take much into consideration his precept “Let food be your medicine”. That being so, I want to know what is in the food I eat.

Knowledge of your subject is essential to give assurance to your critical readers that your views have some factual basis. They may not agree with some or all of the conclusions but will at least respect the argument. If you don’t have relevant knowledge you are, of course, fully entitled to publish your views providing you don’t mislead your readers with unwarranted credentials.

I have faith in certain food suppliers that the food they sell is not designed to deceive me or do me harm. Additives have been necessary for a number of reasons. Most of us are living longer healthier lives than previous generations, so it cannot be too bad.

What causes most harm is something we can directly control – overeating and the consumption of high fat, high sugar food and drink that leads to obesity.

Mervyn Wilmington says:
21 March 2013

The main theme of your article – that consumers should know what they are buying/eating – is exactly right, and government should ensure that they are able to do that.

However, whilst it might be implicit in what you say, perhaps the point could have been made that many people, including myself, would have no objection to eating horsemeat provided we knew that was present.

I thought it a great shame that tons of food was thrown away by the supermarkets. If they had puts labels on saying that there might be horsemeat present, and that it was half price, they would have found many customers. I would have been one.

The point being missed is that by not knowing they were buying in products containing horse meat they did not have control over their supplier(s) – so what else might be in it that they didn’t know about? I wouldn’t touch it if they gave it away.

Mervyn Wilmington says:
21 March 2013

I suggest that you read again what I actually said. I stressed that the key was that consumers were entitled to know what they were buying/eating.

If the retailer could not fulfill that requirement by proper provenance, it follows that the retailer could not meet the requirement. However, that apart, as I recall, there was little, if any, evidence that suggested that such meat was injurious to health directly. It might be part of a long term poor diet, but that is not the same thing.

Mervyn – Are you aware that the food could be unfit for human consumption? It could be from diseased animals and/or ones treated with drugs. Counterfeit food products are unlikely to have been through the tests that are used to ensure – as far as reasonably possible – that meat is safe to eat.

Mervyn Wilmington says:
21 March 2013

I don’t think that I have said anything inconsistent with your comments.

I’m no expert but I believe that food must be withdrawn from sale if it could be unfit for human consumption. That’s why fresh food is not sold after its ‘use by date’. Like Malcolm, I would not touch it, though I would not mind trying horse meat that has been properly tested.

Mervyn, I did read what you said: “there might be horsemeat present” implies they don’t know. But it was not your comment I was really targetting, simply reminding us that this is not just about horsemeat, it is about not knowing the content of food the retailer is passing on. If the retailer has not full control over his suppliers, no matter what label they apply may not represent what they actually have received from that supplier.

Mervyn Wilmington says:
21 March 2013

Malcolm – I’m not sure it is worth protracting this, but my point about ‘there might he horsemeat present’ related only to the food that was being destroyed, not to food more generally.

As matter of fact, we buy very little ‘processed’ food, and when we do we are confident about its source. I agree that largely rules out some supermarkets. However, the simple fact that horsemeat was present would not prevent me from eating food.

Terry says:
21 March 2013

I’m a vegetarian thank God. What bothers me is that if the supermarkets can put horse meat in products and label them as beef what else are getting away with. The government seem too close to the big supermarkets so they can do what they like. Bring back the small shops where we can have choice as we certainly haven’t got it with the supermarkets. Then we will know what we are eating.

Food adulteration has a long history and that includes a lot more than meat. This started centuries before we had supermarkets. I have seen examples of poor hygiene in supermarkets but worse in small shops.

Small shops sold Findus which I believe was adulterated, and they have much less chance to control their suppliers, so I would put more faith in reputable large groups who have the resources to police their purchasing properly – providing they do it!

Now it is fish. I don’t mind eating Coley but I don’t want to pay Cod prices for it!

ian says:
22 March 2013

hasn’t affected my buying in anyway. Why change it hasn’t harmed me if i’ve eaten horsemeat and didn’t know it. Advertising is the main problem in reality, because it doesn’t state that horsemeat makes up a proportion of the ingredients.

Mike Day says:
22 March 2013

I have eaten horse meat when it was for sale at butcher’s shops on the high street. Today’s problem is not with horse meat it is the duplicity of processed food manufacturers and the lack of inspection.
Like Marcella Hickson, I shop at a local butchers at a farm shop where all the food is traceable.
I shop at my local supermarket for other household goods but never for food.

Ian, but what else might be in your food that you (and probably the retailer) don’t about? It is this lack of control that worries me, not the horsemeat per se (it is quite nice).

Michael Grazebrook says:
25 March 2013

Let’s not forget the success story at the heart of this. Full marks to the Irish Food Standards Agency for the original discovery: perhaps we can learn from them. And the temptation for a cover-up, given the scandal’s impact, must have been great – yet there was none. Of course the FSA could have done better – I wish it had been us, not the Irish, who found it! But I do have the sense that, along with the Irish, we have some of the best food safety in Europe.

Of course lessons should be learned, but I for one reckon they’re doing a great job but shouldn’t get an increased budget. The balance is right.

Even if food labels do list the ingredients, you still won’t know what you’re eating. Will your meat, eggs or even milk label tell you whether the food contains antibiotics? I don’t think so. And yet antibiotics are regularly given to healthy livestock to prevent outbreaks of disease. I don’t even trust the fruit and veg you can buy. The label doesn’t include details of what it has been sprayed with.

Even if food labels do list the ingredients, you still won’t know what you’re eating. Will your meat, eggs or milk label tell you whether the food contains antibiotics? I don’t think so. And yet antibiotics are regularly given to healthy livestock to prevent outbreaks of disease. What are they doing to our health? I don’t even trust the fruit and veg in supermarkets. The label doesn’t include details of what it has been sprayed with.

I always make all my meals from scratch as I have never like the quality of meat in ready meals. I do worry about antibiotics and try to buy organic meat if possible but only if it comes from the UK.