A few minutes after this week's newspaper edition of European Voice went to press, I looked again at the headline on page 3, over an article about the covert addition of horsemeat to food products. When it comes to headlines, the format on the page is very important, so it matters that there was a line-break after the fourth word: “Scandal over horsemeat spreads/doubt about EU labelling rules”. With hindsight (ie, too late) I saw that we had (at least for those of a mischievous turn of mind) created a new product line: “horsemeat spreads”. What size jar would a horsemeat spread come in? I wondered. A lunchtime snack or a breakfast relish?
Meanwhile, a few hundred metres away, ministers from the member states were embarking on an emergency meeting to discuss the discovery of horsemeat in various parts of the European food industry. Their conclusions came too late for our newspaper edition, but there is an update on our website here.
For those of us who lived (and worked) through the European Union's traumas with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), particularly during its second phase - after it became clear that its incidence was not confined to the British mainland - what is fascinating is how the controls put in place in the wake of the BSE crisis, not least on traceabilility and labelling, are being tested by horsemeat.
In the United Kingdom, horror at the idea of eating horsemeat is so widespread that there is an immediate assumption that controls must have failed. But national authorities and producers of horsemeat are arguing that a trade in horsemeat is perfectly legal. What is not legal is passing one thing off as another, and they say that the rules have simply been bypassed by illegal activity. They have a point, though controls are supposed to be robust, ie, difficult to bypass.
My limited experience of watching food scares from the vantage point of Brussels warns me not to leap to immediate conclusions. Each outbreak has its own eccentricities and its own lessons. The whiff of illegality in this horsemeat scare is at the moment reminiscent of the Belgian dioxin crisis (1999). The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the UK in 2001 taught some expensive lessons about how to contain an outbreak. An outbreak of H5N1 avian flu in Norfolk six years ago taught some lessons about how to spread a disease. The food-poisoning outbreak in Germany in 2011 that was eventually blamed on contaminated bean-sprout seeds raised some questions about the relations between regional, national and European authorities. At the moment, the authorities in various countries are still mapping the extent of the horsemeat problem. So I withhold judgment, and try to avoid more embarrassing headlines.
Tim has been editor of European Voice since 2009, having joined the staff as deputy editor in 2004. He has been reporting on EU issues since he came to Brussels in 1998. His greatest claim to fame in the eyes of some of his colleagues is that, growing up in north London, he used to have violin lessons with the artist now known as George Michael.
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