It is scandalous that leading food manufacturers and retailers have been selling us food containing horsemeat without our knowledge. As the affected meat had travelled around various EU countries before reaching the UK, and sixteen different EU countries are now affected, making sure this never happens again is something that can only be done at European level.
The horsemeat, found in burgers, lasagnes and other processed foods without proper labelling, shows that there are serious problems with the traceability of food supply chains. An emergency debate on the issue in the European Parliament’s Environment and Food Safety committee was held on Monday, where Labour MEPs called for comprehensive legislation on origin labelling for all meats, including those used in processed foods, and for better enforcement.
If legislation obliges companies to specify to their customers the origin of the meat they use, then the industry would have to keep a much tighter grip on their supply chain – and it would be much less likely that illegal meat of unknown origin gets on to our supermarket shelves.
Last Wednesday EU ministers held crisis talks in Brussels, and Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, is now saying that he wants country of origin labelling for meat in processed foods. However, when the European Parliament backed my comprehensive proposals for EU-wide legislation on country of origin labelling in 2011, the UK government opposed my plans in the Council of Ministers and forced us into a much weaker compromise. I insisted that the European Commission come forward with a report on meat in processed foods by the end of this year, and I hope Owen Paterson will stay true to his word and support MEPs in our on-going battle for honest food labelling for consumers.
It is interesting that Mr. Paterson, one of the most Eurosceptic of Ministers, is now advocating EU legislation as a solution to the current crisis. It is simply common sense that a problem in the meat supply chain, that has so far affected 16 EU members, needs EU-wide measures to combat it. But it is precisely this kind of EU regulation that Eurosceptics deem ‘red tape from Brussels’. In 2011 the UK government said my plans would be too difficult to put into practice because the meat supply chain was too complex. We have now seen what the complexities of the industry can hide.
Sadly, as is too often the case, it has taken a crisis for ministers across the EU to wake up to the fact that we must change the way the food industry works. While regulation can be challenging to get right, it is much more damaging to our food industry to have such a widespread loss of consumer trust in our products. When the European Commission comes forward with the report I asked for into meat in processed foods, MEPs and governments must work together to install a transparent system that shoppers can trust.
As featured on the European Movement blog