Sue Kedgley: Let's stop horsing about on labels

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Could horsemeat be hidden in our food too? With NZ's disclosure requirements it's hard to know for certain.

Woeful food information rules make it unclear what we're eating. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Woeful food information rules make it unclear what we're eating. Photo / Sarah Ivey

It's interesting how a food scare on the other side of the world can create ripples right around the globe.

The discovery that horsemeat, disguised as beef, is being widely sold in Europe in classic dishes such as lasagne, spaghetti bolognese and burgers has created a food scandal in Europe that keeps on escalating.

Tens of millions of burgers and other frozen products have been withdrawn from sale in supermarkets in Britain, Ireland, Sweden, France and Poland. The British Government has admitted it can't guarantee that meat served in hospitals and schools doesn't contain horsemeat. Even fast food chains such as Burger King have been affected, removing thousands of burgers from sale.

The scandal has rocked consumers' confidence in food labelling. It has also exposed the complexity and vulnerability of the modern global food chain. A lot of the suspect meat was produced in Romania, slaughtered in Cyprus, processed in France then sold in the United Kingdom - making it extremely difficult to track the origin of food.

I wondered whether there was any chance that horsemeat, disguised as beef, could be on sale in New Zealand. So I rang the Ministry of Primary Industries.

The ministry's media office immediately went on to red alert. You would think I had asked to know the exact location of our troops in Afghanistan, or some other state secret.

I was passed from pillar to post; told the relevant officials who could talk to me were unavailable; told to write my questions down; told the ministry was working on my requests. Finally, about eight hours later, I was allowed to speak to a pleasant-sounding ministry official, who assured me, as media headlines had earlier, that a horsemeat scare was "highly unlikely" in New Zealand, because we have world class food standards here.

But after chatting to him for a while, it turned out it isn't quite that simple.

While most of the beef on sale in New Zealand comes from New Zealand, we do import beef from overseas - including from the European Union, and other countries such as Australia, Mexico and the United States.

Consumers won't know where their beef comes from, however, as we are one of the only countries in the world that doesn't require manufacturers to declare the country of origin of food.

When our officials began to investigate our beef imports, they discovered that 180 consignments (including frozen beef products such as lasagne and burgers) were imported into New Zealand from England last year. They are now tracking down the importers of those consignments, and checking to see what brands were imported.

If they find suspect products like frozen lasagne or burgers they will probably begin to test them (although most of the imported meat products will probably have been consumed by now).

But what about horses that are slaughtered in New Zealand? Could their meat end up unlabelled in our food?

An abattoir in Gore specialises in slaughtering horses. According to the ministry official, most of our horsemeat is exported to Europe. But 5-10 per cent is sold domestically.

While many New Zealanders would no doubt have qualms about consuming horsemeat, it's not illegal to sell it for human consumption in New Zealand. But it would be illegal to disguise horsemeat as beef. Three hundred samples of meat are tested each year to ensure that meat is what it says it is, and so far the tests have not found any horsemeat disguised as beef.

On the other hand, it isn't illegal to hide horsemeat in food, under the generic label "meat". This is a significant loophole, and means that consumers who eat pies or sausages, for example, could unknowingly be consuming horsemeat.

So the scandal shows, once again, that we need to improve our hopelessly inadequate food labelling.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

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