It has become the reference point for anyone concerned about the integrity of our food supply chains and the integrity of the food business more broadly, so what’s changed?
I was on a train at London Victoria when I heard the news.
It was a Tuesday, I had meetings scheduled in London for most of the day, when up it popped. A tweet from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, announcing the publication of a press release with the headline ‘FSAI survey finds horse DNA in some beef burger products’.
I remember sitting on the train, furiously hitting refresh and reading that release over and over again. ‘In one sample from Tesco, the level of horse DNA indicated that horsemeat accounted for approximately 29% relative to the beef content.’
I couldn’t comprehend what I was looking at. Over the next few months I would learn to become fast and gutsy when reporting on Horsegate events, but at that moment I was simply stunned. It took me ages to decide to tweet about the FSAI announcement, and when I did I was decidedly tame about it– I led on Tesco’s response instead of the survey results.
It just seemed too crazy. I half expected a correction notice to appear on the FSAI website at any moment. ‘Terribly sorry, a mix-up, a prank, of course there’s no horse.’
That correction never came. Instead, over the next days, weeks and months, the horsemeat scandal mushroomed from that initial discovery in Irish-made frozen beefburgers to a scandal stretching across Europe and beyond. Numerous supply chains were implicated and millions of products withdrawn; public apologies were made and new sourcing commitments announced.
Our features editor, Megan Tatum, has just published a fascinating account of how those on the frontline – including the FSAI’s Alan Reilly and Professor Chris Elliott – experienced the early days of the scandal. She also asked them whether the UK is now any better protected against food crime than it was five years ago.
Their feedback is decidedly mixed. While improvements have certainly been made and food crime is higher up the agenda, not least thanks to the National Food Crime Unit launched in the wake of Horsegate, the scandal continues to cast a shadow.
It has become the reference point for anyone concerned about the integrity of our food supply chains and the integrity of the food business more broadly. Although consumer confidence has recovered since the days of the scandal, it doesn’t take much for memories of Horsegate to come flooding back every time practices in the food industry are under scrutiny. There also remain urgent questions about how serious the government is about fighting food crime given the paltry levels of funding and resourcing it makes available.
I also worry about the impact of Brexit. Not just because information sharing and collaboration across Europe could become more difficult, though that is clearly a concern. No, I am concerned the sheer complexity of Brexit means other issues, including food crime and authenticity, simply don’t get the mental bandwidth they would under normal circumstances.
Those ambitious new testing regimes everyone was talking about five years ago, the sourcing commitments, the shorter supply chains, the cultural shift around dealing with supplier transgressions, the new era of transparency – we are hearing so much less about all of that than we did pre-referendum.
Yet there is huge risk in allowing these issues to fade into the background. For if there’s any lesson in Horsegate it surely is that blind spots left unattended for too long will cost you dearly in the end.