The horsemeat scandal has taken on European proportions. While European countries seek to blame each other, they are ignoring the underlying problem, which is that the economic crisis has meant that low income families are increasingly dependent on cheap meat. started as a problem in Ireland and the UK: horse meat in beef burgers in, of all places, the most horse-loving of countries. It has since grown into a food scandal at the European level. For although the horse meat has found its way into convenience food products on Irish and British shelves, it may well originate from slaughterhouses in other parts of Europe.

Like the EHEC bacteria in 2011, this scandal too has launched a frantic bout of finger-pointing. The European meat industry accounts for billions of euros each year and no country wants to be held to blame. Ireland has implied that the fault lies with Poland, which has denied any wrongdoing. Sweden has sought to blame France. France suspects Cyprus, Romania and the Netherlands to be the countries where the trade in wrongly labelled batches of meat took place. The meat found its way into Irish and British meat-processing plants, when it was delivered to companies such as Findus, which sells frozen ready meals in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and France.

Horses are not earmarked

"This problem encompasses all of Europe”, warned Alan Reilly of the Irish Food Services Authority last Friday. Yesterday, the British Minister of Agriculture, Owen Paterson, spoke of "an international criminal conspiracy”.

There is not anything inherently unhealthy about horse meat. However, the reason for the uproar in the horse-loving countries is not only because, as Reilly pointed out last month, "it is not in our culture to eat horsemeat”.

The fact that the meat cannot as yet to be traced to a farmer or slaughterhouse is a serious problem. Worse still, no one knows how it got into the deep-frozen products, or for how long this practice has been going on.

These are the questions that the governments, police and food authorities in various European countries are now trying to answer. They are important because horsemeat may contain phenylbutazone, a drug used to treat joint disorders and colic in horses. Phenylbutazone cannot be administered to animals that are destined for human consumption, because, in rare instances, it can cause anaemia and leukaemia. Due to the economic crisis, however, more and more horses are being slaughtered and not, it is now suspected, in official slaughterhouses. What's more, horses are not earmarked, as is the case with cattle and sheep. So it is not always clear whether or not they are intended for the food trade.

UK food prices risen by 26%

"If Findus and Tesco cannot have a safe supply line for their products, then we have a major problem within this sector of the trade,” said Alan Reilly on Friday. According to the British and Irish food authorities, responsibility for checking the meat lies with the supermarkets and producers. Results from tests of more deep-frozen meals are expected on Friday. The Paterson has said that he expects "more bad news”.

"But the real problem is: why was horse meat present in beef burgers?” asks Elizabeth Dowler, Professor of Food and Social Policy at Warwick University. In answer to her own question, she remarks: "Because the price had to be kept as low as possible.” The burgers in question cost 13 pence (15 euro cents) apiece at Tesco and Iceland, Findus frozen lasagne generally retails at £1.60 per pound (€1.86 for 453 grams).

Food prices in the United Kingdom have risen by 26 per cent in the past five years. Although prices in Ireland have not risen as sharply, the crisis has prompted a serious decline in purchasing power.

‘Problem linked to poverty’

And the price of beef has also gone up. This morning, a kilo of beef at the Smithfield meat market in London cost a minimum of £7.70 (€9). In February 2007, the price was £5.60 per kilo. "To make meat cheaper, it is supplemented, and not with good proteins,” says Prof Dowler. And horsemeat is one-fifth cheaper than beef. She seriously doubts that "quality meat” is used.

"This has the most impact on those with low incomes and large numbers of children. People in this situation have no money to buy better quality burgers, or to go to a butcher and make their own mincemeat. Instead they depend on special 3-for-2 offers,” she says. "The problem is linked to poverty.”

She believes that consumers are well aware of what they are buying. "All my studies into low-income families show that people knew that “cheap” was anything but “cheerful”, even before the crisis. But often they have no choice.” What she does doubt, however, is that consumers realise how food is produced. "It's too easy to resort to anecdotes about children who think that milk comes from cartons instead of cows. But do you really know how the milk industry works?”

13 February 2013 NRC Handelsblad Amsterdam