As I've watched the national media coverage of the horse meat scandal unfolding over the past several weeks, I've been a bit perplexed by the characterisation of the supply chain on which the meat travelled. In the UK, for instance, there has been a huge focus on the fact that the meat originated in Romania, was sold in France and had further stops in Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
“Authorities are now trying to trace the meat's circuitous path across Europe,” declared America's ABC News. Findus' beef lasagne which was found to contain horse meat made an "extraordinary journey” before making its way to UK shelves, the BBC told us. "For a plate of lasagne, five countries!" exlaimed an infograph in Le Monde. In most of these characterisations, the fact that the starting point was Romania seemed to be singled out as a particularly nefarious part of the journey.
But last I checked, this is a single market. Why should it be considered surprising or “circuitous” that meat should be reared in one member state, slaughtered in another and sold in a third? If this same scandal had taken place in the United States, would the media be as fascinated by a “circuitous route” that saw meat reared in Montana, slaughtered in Tennessee and sold in Illinois?
Surely the journey from abattoir to plate involves many different actors even when it takes place within one country. Why should the number of EU member states in which the meat passed through be so alarming?
It is thus perplexing why both member states and environmental groups alike have reacted to this case of fraud by demanding country-of-origin labelling for meat in processed foods.
Currently such labelling is only required for fresh meat. Yesterday Green MEPs called a press conference to demand the regime be extended to processed foods. Later that day during a meeting of agriculture ministers, Germany, France and the UK asked European health commissioner Tonio Borg to put forward a plan by June to extend the labelling to these foods.
Borg emerged from the meeting saying he was “open to the idea”. But he cautioned that whatever the merits of such a law are, they have nothing whatsoever to do with the horse meat scandal.
“Even if we had the place of origin legislation in place, this incident would have occurred just the same,” he said, adding that it was the species of animal that was mislabelled, not the country of origin. Still, he said, there is no harm to “grasp the opportunity of this blow to consumer confidence in the food chain to introduce stringent legislation also on place of origin.”
But what exactly is the purpose of making this change now? Given the recent headlines, one can assume that a British consumer would think twice before buying a package of processed food labelled as coming from Romania. Their first choice would probably be to buy meat from Britain, and they might even pay a bit extra for it.
Is that fair? Environmentalists would tell you that it is much less CO2-intensive and more humane to eat meat sourced locally. That may be so, but is a consumer also being given a misleading impression of more safety by a package with a domestic label? Why should the specific country be of such importance? Shouldn't the real focus simply be on the vendor's ability to trace their own meat to its source?
After yesterday's agriculture meeting Commissioner Borg cautioned that these common market elements need to be taken into account. “There are some who object who are arguing this is a hidden way of introducing protectionism within the EU,” he said. “The labelling will not be whether it was produced and manufacture red inside the EU or outside, but where in the EU itself it originated. Is this a form of veiled protectionism?”
These days it is rare to see member states exhibit such enthusiasm for more EU regulation, particularly in the consumer area. One wonders if there are other motivations at play here.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at DaveKeating@economist.com.