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Process information when buying food

Publication Date : 21-02-2013


The discovery of horse meat in some beef products in Ireland has set off a Europe-wide scare. This is reminiscent of the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - commonly known as the mad cow disease - in the 1980s. This time around, there have been no casualties, but countries such as Poland and Romania are in the spotlight as the possible origins of the suspect meat. Given the complexity of the global food-processing chain, what is important is less the alleged culpability of the national jurisdictions involved and more the need to re-establish public confidence in the operations of the food market. European Union ministers have moved swiftly over the horse meat contamination, which led to food recalls across the continent, by calling for more intensive meat testing for a month.

Although horse meat is edible, it is considered taboo in some places, where cultural sensitivities have been offended deeply by the discovery. It is these sensibilities that are often as important as issues of health and hygiene. The case of cheaper beef being mixed into mutton in Singapore recently attracted swift punitive action against the offending outlets. This was appropriate not only because of the financial dishonesty involved but also because of the grave offence given to those for whom beef is taboo. Similar religious and cultural considerations should shape industry norms against the use of ingredients that consumers do not expect to find in the products which they buy.

Regulatory oversight is an essential part of food safety, and companies which are found to have breached rules against adulteration must be subjected to deterrent penalties. However, it is unrealistic to expect regulators to guarantee complete compliance in an industry as large and complicated as food processing. It is essential therefore for food companies to practise self-regulation. They should exercise strict control over in-house industrial practices, put in place regular checks to ensure that their suppliers are not taking short cuts, and generally abide by the ethical standards which are expected of any industry. When industry norms become firmly established, any firm that tampers with processes in an unacceptable way is more likely to stick out like a sore thumb.

Should abuses come to light, it is up to consumers to shun firms that break the rules. Consumers ought to demonstrate resolve and awareness by instinctively reading labels and demanding clearer information. There is no single way in which health or religious hazards can be avoided completely, but a culture of alertness is necessary. The horse meat scandal should reinforce this mindset of exercising caution when buying processed food.


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