A month many will wish to forget

The FSAI served eight Irish food businesses with closure orders during July
The FSAI served eight Irish food businesses with closure orders during July

Fionnuala Carolan on why despite the serious consequences for Europe's meat industry, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland should be commended for unearthing the horsemeat scam



19 February 2013

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What a month we’ve had! From horse burgers to bakery bust ups, to a host of administrations of major retail brands, 2013 has started with a bang in the retail trade and none of it was good news. 

The horsemeat controversy has been akin to opening a can of worms, with each day bringing a more astonishing revelation. The whole issue of labelling has been cast into doubt because if the basic ingredients we are eating are not what they claim to be, then why would we believe that the likes of the salt or fat content of a product is accurate? While last year we were considering the need for placing calorie content on menus, now consumers would settle for knowing the core ingredient in their products.

When we heard the first revelations about equine DNA being present in Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers some weeks ago, there was much light-hearted banter doing the rounds but that has since dried up and it is definitely no laughing matter anymore. This discovery has seriously rocked consumer confidence and there are likely to be far reaching consequences. Gillian Hamill has spent the month following the story (see page 18) and to add another pun to the pile – this story keeps running and running.

The reality of the situation is that suppliers have been substituting horse meat and other substances into our food in order to cut costs. No doubt this is a criminal matter that requires a full investigation and people will have to be prosecuted for it. However it begs the question of what price pressures suppliers have been under in order to resort to this type of practice? Could the finger be pointed or even a portion of the blame attributed to the major multiples throughout Europe for continually squeezing its suppliers for better deals, tighter margins and bigger promotions?

The concentration of power in the retail sector has been getting progressively lopsided. As the small greengrocer disappears, the multinationals are springing up in every shape and size from hypermarkets to convenience stores to specialised coffee shops. The buying power of these retailers is colossal and suppliers will do almost anything to stay onside. If this means substituting cheaper ingredients into foods to be able to pull a profit, well maybe they feel it is worth the risk. 

In Ireland over 90% of retail power is shared amongst the top five retailers. For this reason suppliers and farmers have been screaming out for a statutory code of conduct to be put in place to regulate dealings within the trade. Just last month the UK appointed Christine Tacon as an independent Groceries Code adjudicator. She will have the authority to regulate dealings between the UK’s ten largest supermarkets and their suppliers and will have the power to make recommendations, arbitrate disputes and impose fines.

Ireland is still waiting for our draft code to be turned into a statutory code of conduct and for an independent ombudsman to investigate abuses to be instated. An ombudsman would have the authority to rule on misleading or false labelling, which it seems will be very much needed from now on. Maybe this controversy will give the government a final push to make this happen. 

And speaking about issues between suppliers and retailers, the split between Musgrave and Cuisine de France over the last month is a case in point. Surely an independent ombudsman would be useful in cases like this to preside over events and help them find a middle ground before a stalemate sets in and they part ways completely.

Hopefully the meat issue will be well and truly contained and concluded in the month ahead but one thing that is for certain, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland seems to have unearthed one of the biggest food scams in living memory and must be commended for it.

Fionnuala Carolan



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