The Commission breathless behind the horsemeat scandal

Tonio Borg, Member of the EC in charge of Health and Consumer Policy on the left, receives Peter Vicary-Smith, President of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). (EC Audiovisual Services).

Tonio Borg, Member of the EC in charge of Health and Consumer Policy on the left, receives Peter Vicary-Smith, President of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). (EC Audiovisual Services).

The horsemeat scandal is still running free all over the European Union. Yesterday, a pompously named EU Commission group entitled, “Standing Committee of the Food Chain and Animal Health” (SCoFCAH), unanimously agreed in an extraordinary meeting, that the measures proposed by Commissioner Tonio Borg are adequate to counter the health and the fraud problem related to this scandal. To be noted that until yesterday, the new Maltese Commissioner Borg, responsible or probably irresponsible for Health and Consumer Policy insisted that the horse meat scandal doesn’t pose any health problems.

It was only the day before yesterday that the 27 EU ministers of Agriculture heard Tonio saying, “regarding the unlabeled presence of horsemeat found in certain processed food products, including burgers and beef lasagne…it is important to underline that the evidence to date in relation to this episode does not suggest a health crisis. Horsemeat, according to EU legislation, can be used for the production of minced meat and meat preparations”…As it turned out this horsemeat is suspected of containing phenylbutazone. This is a veterinary medicine  the use of which in food-producing animals is illegal.

In less than 24 hours Tonio was obliged by facts to retreat in his words and yesterday asked the 27 member states to test samples also for this dangerous for human health substance. This fact, however, brings us to samples. Given that the suspect foods are burgers, minced meat and meat preparations the logical thing is to conduct controls over the entire spectrum of the market. Not only on super markets and similar establishments selling such products but also on shops selling cooked food. Establishments of wholesalers producing or trading these product arrays should also be a part of the sample. No?

Let’s see what Tonio said yesterday, after having to retreat on his reassurances that there was no health problem. Finally after been forced to recognise that there is a HEALTH PROBLEM, the Maltese Tonio proposed a plan to counter it, which was briefly approved unanimously by the above mentioned SCoFCAH committee. His words deserve to be quoted because probably tomorrow he might be obliged to retreat again from what he said. The basic lines of the decision agreed unanimously by this above committee are as follows:

“The plan, foresees controls, mainly at retail level, of foods destined for the final consumer and marketed as containing beef to detect the presence of unlabeled horse meat (indicative total number of 2250 samples across the Union ranging from 10 to 150 per Member State). Detection of possible residues of phenylbutazone in horse meat: the plan foresees testing of 1 sample for every 50 tons of horse meat. A Member State will carry out a minimum of 5 tests. Phenylbutazone is a veterinary medicinal product whose use in food-producing animals, including horses, is illegal”.

Let’s say that you live in a medium-sized EU country and authorities there undertake to perform 70 controls. Now how many are the varieties of burger like products and the establishments selling them in your country? Hundreds or thousands? Every logical person will go for the second option. Do you need to be a statistician to think that 70 tests are ridiculously few and obviously inadequate, to catch-all those fast running horses?

Mind you, Tonio also said that “this plan is co-financed by the European Commission”. Is this probably the reason why the tests are so few? If it was a public relations affair to promote the dignitaries of the EU, the Commission would have been much more generous. A comparison of public affairs expenses and the cost of such consumer protection schemes would produce very interesting results about the Commission’s priorities.

In any case, the number of test seems quite insufficient to actually identify the extent of the health and fraud problems consumers are incurring. The European Commission was too late to recognise the problem and devoted too little means to counter it.

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