There’s something gripping about a food scandal. The idea we could be inadvertently eating something taboo exercises a fascination on the public mind. But where has all the horsemeat in supermarket bolognese and burgers come from?
At the moment, attention inside government is focused on Romania and Mexico. Romania is in the frame because of a 2007 law banning animal-driven carts. This led to huge numbers of horses and donkeys being slaughtered. All this meat couldn’t be sold in country. The fear is that it has ended up crossing the European Union, with the label changing from horse to beef on the way.
There is another explanation — one that concerns environment secretary Owen Paterson so much that he has raised it with the food industry at both his summit meetings with them. This is that the start of the chain is actually in Mexico. How could that be? Well, in 2007, the Texas courts upheld a law banning horse slaughter. This, and a similar verdict in Illinois, meant that the last equine abattoirs in the United States shut up shop. But American horses were still killed for food. They just went down to Mexico to die.
A result of this was that imports to the EU of horsemeat from Mexico jumped from €1.3 million in 2006 to €11.8 million in 2007, peaking at €21.4 million in 2010. In 2012, their value is estimated to have been around €20 million. So Owen Paterson’s fear is that once the horsemeat is through customs and inside the single market, much of it is being passed off as beef. This ‘Mexican explanation’ is particularly alarming because American horses are far more likely to have been injected with drugs than Romanian donkeys.
The horsemeat fiasco has brought to light another important point: our daily government is, on so many issues, in Brussels. The public scream for ministers to ‘do something’, but there is, in reality, little they can do. A ban on meat imports, which would address the international aspects of this situation, is against EU rules. As the environment secretary likes to say, the EU ‘affects every single activity from the moment we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed at night’.
Compounding this problem is the regulator, the Food Standards Agency, which is extremely sensitive about politicians interfering with its work, especially politicians like Paterson who opposed its creation. It was not keen on his decision to summon the retailers in for a personal meeting on Saturday.
Ironically, it is Paterson, the most Euro-sceptic member of the Cabinet, who has been left to explain repeatedly that food labelling is a ‘European competence’. Watching him these past few days, I’ve been reminded of an interview he did with The Spectator in December 2011 in which he warned that this country can’t even ensure EU-wide fair dealing ‘on the egg industry’.
Paterson’s frankness about the extent to which the EU is in charge has irritated some colleagues. There are many Tories, including ministers, who think that admitting how much control has passed to the EU is impolitic and only helps Ukip. But it is farcical to suggest that British ministers should pretend to have authority over matters that they do not.
Tellingly, the environment secretary has had to seek permission from Brussels for many of the steps he is taking to deal with this crisis. He had to consult with Commissioner Ciolos, a former Romanian agriculture minister, and the Maltese health commissioner Tonio Borg, whose predecessor resigned in a corruption scandal, about the extent to which this country could randomly test meat being imported from the continent.
Trying to trace the point at which horsemeat becomes ‘beef’ has become a Europe-wide game. At Cabinet on Tuesday, Paterson described how he had contacted agriculture minister after agriculture minister in an attempt to find out where the switchover is happening. In a conversation with French agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll, he pushed for more rapid European action. This should follow from an emergency meeting being held by Commissioner Borg in Brussels on Wednesday night.
But this incident illustrates another problem with the single market: there are virtually no checks once products are inside it. As one of those involved in the government’s response to this situation says, ‘It is a faith- based system, that isn’t working.’
The Romanians are extremely sensitive about any suggestion that the fraud is happening there. They maintain that as one of the abattoirs involved only deals with horses, meat must be leaving the plant labelled correctly. Recent developments do suggest that blaming purely external factors might be simplistic. But there’s no doubt that single market rules are more difficult to enforce in a vastly expanded union.
The European Union will no longer be a club of relatively prosperous Western European nations, and that is much on the minds of British politicians at the moment. At the end of this year, all Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to move to this country for work. The government is refusing to say how many people it expects to take advantage of this opportunity. But given that per capita GDP in Romania is only 36 per cent of what it is in Britain, and in Bulgaria 39 per cent, one imagines a large number of workers will come in the hope of a more prosperous life.
Nick Clegg is currently preparing a big speech on immigration; it would have been given last week but for the Eastleigh by-election. He wants to address the fact that even those voters with an open mind towards his party, view it as soft on immigration. In 2015, there’ll be no repeat of the last manifesto’s promise of earned amnesty for illegal immigrants. But some in the Clegg circle want to go further than that. One influential member of it has come to the view that transition controls on new EU members, which limit the right of free movement, should last for 20 years not seven. This wonk suggests that if Turkey ever did join, then transition controls would have to be based on per capita GDP to prevent an unsustainable level of immigration.
Eurosceptics are easily mocked for claiming that almost any issue is really about the EU. The problem is, they are often right: much of our government is now based in Brussels.
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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013