National Consumers League


NCL Food Issues

Food fraud in the news

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Woman looking skeptically at fast food burgerFood fraud seems to be in the news a lot lately. In the United States, we've recently heard about mislabeled fish, while Europe has been rocked by a widespread scandal involving mislabeled horsemeat.

Because American consumers may not be as familiar with this case, we thought we’d outline the basic facts of the case. These facts illustrate that food fraud around the world shares some basic characteristics.

What is the scandal?

As part of routine testing for their Quality Assurance program, the Food Standards Agency of Ireland found that some product labeled as beef actually contained horsemeat and pork. Further testing has found horsemeat in many products throughout Europe.

Is this a food safety issue?

No. However, this fraud does raise other issues. As with any fraud, the consumer is not getting what they paid for and intended to eat. While most of the mislabeled meat is horse meat, some is pork, a product which some religious groups do not eat. Additionally, while horsemeat is commonly eaten in some countries, many people are not comfortable consuming horse because they view these animals as companion animals, more like a dog or cat than a cow or a pig.

How and why did this happen?

There are several issues here. As with all food fraud, there is economic motivation here; someone decided that by passing off horsemeat as beef, they could increase their profit margin. This scandal also indicates just how complicated, dispersed and globalized our food system has become. Initial inquiries indicate that the slaughterhouse did label their product as horsemeat and that the mislabeling occurred further downstream in processing.

What are the implications of this scandal?

The fact that this adulteration is so widespread has shocked the public. A scandal like this, and the follow up action taken by the government, can often serve as a warning to other bad actors engaging in similar behavior. In an ideal world, the realization that fraud of this scale is in fact occurring will prompt more spot checks by the government. However, in an era of increasing fiscal austerity, this may or may not happen. Hopefully though, this will at the very least raise consumers’ awareness of the potential for adulteration and prompt the industry, which is only hurt when something like this happens, to establish more stringent supplier checks.


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