This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the U.S. meat industry, but an announcement earlier this week from authorities in The Netherlands once again demonstrated a serious flaw in the food-safety regulations governing animal foods.
According to news reports, Dutch authorities are going to recall 50,000 tons of beef sold throughout Europe—including France, Germany and Spain—because its exact source could not be verified, and thus the suspicion that the products might contain horse meat.
In all, 370 different companies in Europe and 132 in Holland will be affected by the recall because those firms purchased product from two Dutch trading companies, according to a statement from Esther Filon of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.
The authority released a statement explaining that because the exact source of the meat cannot be traced, “Its safety cannot be guaranteed.” The statement added that Dutch authorities have “no concrete indications that there is a risk to public health.”
Filon said the recall dates from Jan. 1, 2011, through Feb. 1, 2013, when the companies at the center of the recall came under heightened scrutiny and in some cases, criminal investigations.
The trading firms in question are Wiljo Import en Export B.V. and Vleesgroothandel Willy Selten B.V.
Don’t try to pronounce that second one; you’ll just hurt yourself.
As Filon told The Associated Press, “If meat has an unclear source, then the general food law says it is no longer fit for human or animal food.”
Here today, gone yesterday
There are two problems with this entire scenario: the nature of the announcement and the actual recall itself.
First of all, why do food-safety authorities on both sides of the Atlantic always maximize the extent of any recall? In this case, the amount was 50,000 tons, or an Austin Powers-esque 100 million pounds of product. When the period of a recall extends to more than two years, conceivably some of the beef could still be sitting in a freezer somewhere, but the reality is that nearly all of it has already been cooked and consumed.
Is it really necessary to wear out the office calculator figuring out the theoretical tonnage of product that might be affected by a 26-month recall? That inflated total then becomes the number the media reports, and that’s the amount of meat the public assumes will be pulled out of cold storage or from supermarkets cases, loaded on a giant convoy of trucks and hauled off to a landfill somewhere.
By publicizing the theoretical amount of product affected in a recall, authorities create a totally unrealistic scenario ripe for exaggeration by industry opponents and perfect for reinforcing false notions about the (alleged) lack of food safety too many consumers tend to believe is characteristic of meat products.
Filon herself conceded that because the recall dates back more than two years, some of the meat “may already have been consumed” (Some? You think?), but that authorities are bound by law to order that large of a recall.
Deeper down in the news stories reporting on the recall, it was noted that, “It was not immediately clear how much of the meat is likely to be tracked down,” although how many casual readers are going to slog through a news item about a recall? They catch the headline, shake their heads at the 50,000 ton-total and move on.
Even worse, Dutch authorities announced that they don’t intend to test all the meat. Why? Obviously, they don’t anticipate actually collecting all that much product, and I’m reading between the lines here, but neither does there seem to be any sense of urgency about the “threat” that some of this beef might contain horse meat.
But the more serious question here is why? Why did this continuing lack of source verification go on for more than two years? Horse meat or no, the law requires that raw materials be tracked and monitored, yet more than two years went by without anyone checking the documentation. How could that happen?
That’s a far worse problem than either the agency/media overkill on total tonnage or the continued charade about the “dangers” of horse meat.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.