“Buyers are scouring Europe for the best end-of-the-line deals that happen when abattoirs have too much meat,” the former industry executive added. Each, he says, will have 10 to 20 abattoirs they deal with; if an abattoir has carcasses it needs to shift, the manager would hit the phones. “At the value end, that’s what they would be doing.”
Regulatory checks and balances may exist to outlaw adulteration, but they cannot prevent it. Indeed, bulking out staples with cheaper ingredients has flourished as incomes dwindle. In Britain, a common ruse is bulking out basmati rice with cheaper grains; across Europe, topping up olive oil with cheaper vegetable variants is another favored scam. More creatively, a Mediterranean supplier was caught milling up Moorish roof slates with similarly colored paprika.
Testing should detect adulteration, but while big brands and retailers insist they are vigorous at every link in the chain, John Smart, who heads up the British fraud investigations department for Ernst & Young, sees many taking a more cursory view.
“They rely on primary suppliers to be doing the same sort of due diligence they did [on their suppliers in turn] . . . and could be six or seven links down the chain before you get to the ultimate source,” he said. Indeed, “Some contracts stop you going down further than one layer.”
Back at the processors, the job lots of meat are banked up. Basic data, such as fat content, are punched into the computer, which calculates the requisite weights and recipe before setting the mixer in motion — and meat boxes are morphed into burgers.
A similar process takes place for lasagna, where the meat arrives in frozen pellets described by one worker as being like “a sackful of hundreds and thousands; you put a knife through the bottom” and they cascade into the mixing pot.
What might strike gourmands as disdain for food right through the process reflects many factors. The food industry is in the cross hairs on several fronts. It will be required to feed an extra 2 billion mouths by 2050, with roughly the same amount of land. People are not just eating more, but more meat and other resource-heavy foods.
Meanwhile, the industry is trying to answer policymakers’ calls for healthier food — while batting off any efforts at legislation to ensure that they do so. And above all, consumers want food that is affordable, regardless of higher commodity prices, droughts and regulatory requirements.
That is as true for dinner tables in London or New York as back in Romania, where Sorin Minea, head of the local food industry association and himself in the meat processing trade, attributes the horsemeat scandal to pressure on costs from big supermarkets, and ultimately, consumer demand for ultra-cheap food.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see why a supplier might substitute horsemeat for beef. Romanian slaughterhouses sell horsemeat for about 30 cents a pound; beef goes for about $1.80 a pound.
While beef and pork prices have gone up in recent years, “supermarkets ask to keep the price as cheap as possible,” Minea said, echoing processors and producers across the globe. “For suppliers to sell at the same price, they must change the recipe — or change the raw material and mix in something else.”
— Financial Times
Buckley reported from Rasnov, Transylvania.