The horsemeat scandal shows the true extent of Europe’s power in Britain

16 February 2013

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’.

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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.

Hear James Forsyth on our ‘View from 22’ podcast.

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Show comments
  • Vulture

    ‘Eurosceptics are often mocked…’ Yes, James, too often by the Spectator and by your chum Dave above all. But ( nice to see a sinner repenting) – glad to see you admitting that the Eurosceptics are ‘often right’ as indeed they are.

    It’s a moot point about whether British politicians who have handed over their ‘competences’ to a foreign dictatorship are idiots or traitors., because they have to be one or the other.

    Meantime, Dave has just invited a billion Indians to come and settle here – great news for the voters of Eastleigh worried ( like everyone else) about them or their children – 22% of whom are unemployed – having any hope of getting and keeping a home or a job.

    I appeal to all CH readers with time on their hands to journey to Eastleigh and campaign for the UKIP candidate Diane James. Your country needs you – it really does.

    • Nolo servile capistrum

      And thereby let the europhile lib dems back in? Is that wise?

  • http://twitter.com/Terence_I Terence Hale

    The horsemeat scandal shows the true extent of Europe’s power in Britain. Eating horse meat is like a farmer eating his tractor and in Britain without declarations is a crime.

  • dmj

    Didnt stop the French from banning our beef during BSE

    • Nolo servile capistrum

      And that is why the health issue is so important. The French banned our beef on health grounds and we can do the same if the Mexican connection is proved. Patterson is no fool.

  • brian calls

    Once sorted, where will all the millions of horse end up each year, if not in our food chain, where ? Beware

    • iviv44

      inside Gnasher and Kitty?

  • gregqq

    If UKIP were not full of racist thugs and bigots I might agree with you. Just take a moment to read comments by Douglas Denny, Jan Zolyniak and senior UKIP member Dr Julia Gasper. These are truly evil people.

    • Vulture

      gregqq: Bullshit – I was at the UKIP hustings in Eastleigh on Sunday and the people there, in age ranging from 12 to 83, were what used to be the backbone of Britain. WI and British Legion members; ex-Labour people, and of course former stalwarts of the Tory association.

      Salt of the earth more than ‘truly evil people’. UKIP is the only party to specifically say it is non-racist and to ban ex-BNP members from joining. So your charge is utter nonsense. These people want to rescue the country from the scum who have usurped it – now the latter really are ‘truly evil people’.

    • bob

      I belong to ukip and I am an ordinary citizen like many others of ukip scaremongers like you are not needed or wanted.

    • UKSteve

      DR Julia Gasper is NOT a senior UKIP member, she is an ordinary branch member. I don’t know if you intended this, but your comments make you look spectacularly stupid. Never let the facts…..

      Of course, you’ve never been in UKIP, so it’s therefore understandable that you type such stupid bilge.

  • RC

    British anti-EU commenters routinely insist that want “just a Common Market”. Judging from this article, it’d seem that actually, that’s the very last thing you want.
    Please, be honest: what this proves is precisely that, if you want a real Common Market, without national protectionistic barriers posturing as “safety standards”, but at the same time you want a reasonable degree of consumer protection and open competition, you need some kind of central authority and common rules. By insisting on “taking power back from Brussels” and emasculating the European Commission, you have opened the door to just this kind of abuses. And by now asking for the right to ban imports, you are sounding…very French, I’d say.

    • DRXL44

      Don’t be so daft! I’ve never read such a shallow remark about the notion of a “common market”! The UK used to have and could again have its own authorities and rules for trade.

      • RC

        “The UK used to have and could again have its own authorities and rules for trade.”

        In that case, each one of the other 26 EU member states could also each one have their own rules and regulators. France, for instance, would have a good excuse to request systematic checks for bute on every single meat shipment across its borders, since it has been proved that bute-tainted British horsemeat has been shipped to France. Good luck trading across such a “common market”!

  • nashok

    @Vulture; So you think Cameron has invited 1 billion Indians to come and work in the UK – yes, as long as they can earn minimum 31k a year which you conveniently forgotten to add. Now imagine 1 billion UK residents earning over 31k a year! Phew, we shall rule the galaxy!

    As for James Forsyth…eat your words man ’cause news just in – UK has been exporting horsemeat to EU!

    The sad truth is that this country is in decline because of its own lazy, narcissistic, greedy citizens and rather than facing up to the truth, they turn to nasties like UKIP to find someone to blame.

    Yes, your country needs you – but it definitely doesn’t need UKIP

    • Vulture

      nashok: £30k is the average salary so it should not be an impossible goal for the average Indian immigrant to reach. This county is F******g FULL! WE haven’t enough houses and jobs for pour own people let alone an entire sub-continent.

      And as for your calumnies against UKIP ‘nasties’, as I say below, UKIP members aren’t nasty ( wrong address : I believe you need the Tories) they’re just ordinary decent people – puzzled and hurt by the poltiicians who have turned their country into a cesspit. And who can blame them>?

      • nashok

        Average salary is NOT the same as minimum salary; apples vs oranges,Sir! Total fail, I’m afraid, you just won’t get it.

        I’m all for country controlling its immigration intake but I don’t blame the immigrants for our ills and I don’t scaremonger like ‘invited 1 billion Indian to come and live in the UK’

        UKIP is a nasty group just out to capture votes by breeding hatred against foreigners.

      • Grrr8

        Eh actually the median income is £26k.

  • NickCrosby

    @disqus_vVBs4K71k3:disqus If you and your UKIP lot are so nice and friendly, why do you call yourself Vulture and why do you use F***** full etc. in your posts? You seem v aggressive.

    • Vulture

      I didn’t say I was cuddly Nick – I said that those UKIP members I have met are nice, ordinary people.

      I’m often quite angry about the way that politicians have done to our country what Mark Oaten like rent boys to do all over him.

      But maybe you like that too?

      • jaygeejay


  • Romanian

    Years ago I subscribed for an year to the Spectator, in reason of the outstanding reputation enjoyed by this British magazine in Romania.

    Now – and not for the first time – I’m reading here only ridiculous and crappy speculations about Romania (a 2007 law banning animal-driven carts leading to huge numbers of horses and donkeys being slaughtered, Romanians flooding the UK). This is really the lowest level of the most disgusting and dullest tabloids. I must say, Spectator has sunk very low.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrstark2 Janine Starykowicz

    The EU approved plants from the US that have moved to Mexico are owned by Belgian corporations. When we were trying to shut down Cavel in Illinois (parent company Velda Group) the King of Belgium sent a letter supporting them to our Illinois legislators.

  • http://www.facebook.com/donna.mcardle.56 Donna McArdle

    The USA banned horse slaughter years ago, and current legislation opens the doors for it to happen again. Americans won’t eat horse meat. We, as a nation,USA are becoming increasingly more health conscious.Why would we eat meat laden with veterinary chemicals that will create cancer and other physical goodies in us? This British fiasco concerning horse meat parading as beef is the proverbial red flag for us Americans.. it will happen here, too… Britons probably wouldn’t knowingly eat horsemeat either, especially if they knew the yummy toxins that were in it. Horses are NOT raised as food animals, and not destined to be on our plates. Greedy bastards who indulge in this practice are no better than the Chinese with their fake prescription pills that parade as the real drugs.. NO concience, no concern for public welfare. No shit.
    Europeans and other countries in the world eat anything with two or four legs…. is there a shortage of food or what, that horse meat is the latest meat filler?
    Besides the nasty business of horse meat masquerading as lamb or beef, there is the horrific ways these horses are obtained… many are stolen pets,wild horses taken off land reserved for them ( USA) and shipped like used cars on overfilled trucks without concern for their safety or welfare.. hey, just get them to the slaughter plant, we don’t give a shit, lets get the money and run..
    WAKE up Europe!!! Shut those doors to North American Horsemeat, you really don’t want to eat it, unless you are feeling suicidal!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/suzyandecho.johnson SuzyandEcho Johnson

    No surprise – horses aren’t typically kept or raised as food animals. Over 100,000 unregulated U.S. horses exported to Canada and Mexico with the majority going to the EU. The U.S. has NO food animal requirements for horses exported for slaughter. Horse dealers in the U.S. are allowed to create ‘foreign’ drug affidavits immediately after they acquire a horse, with no knowledge and no consequences. No passports, no real identification. The horse dealers are allowed to put a number on them, immediately before they ship. The EU has no idea what they are eating! Kelsey Lefever admitted to the press she sold 120 race horses – all almost inevitably given a whole host of drugs – did they send a ‘warning’ letter? What good does a warning letter do a year later? They have known the horse slaughter cartel is corrupt and chose to allow it.

  • David Lindsay

    This is nothing. Just wait for the “free trade” agreement between the EU and the US. Do you know how they produce meat in the US?

  • hobbyhorse1

    This article misses the point. While regulation is important the real culprits here are the big supermarket chains whose business model is to drive down the price of ALL products to unrealistic levels and allow quality to go by the board and unless and until they change their attitude these scandals will continue to occur no matter what regulations are put in place by either the EU or our own government.

  • disqus_UsGqE74c6P

    1. there is no such a law banning animal-driven carts in Romania ; more likely one of the five intermediate companies put the papers from Romania (a EU member) to a non EU import of horse meat

    2. since joining the EU, free movement means that everybody from Romania and Bulgaria that wanted to go and live in UK (to work as doctors or beg in the streets whatever the case might be) already did it so stop thinking about an imigration boom .

    • david17606

      It’s open house for milking the UK benefits system from January 2014. That’s a big difference.

  • bengeo

    “Hope the horsemeat from Canada hasn’t infiltrated the foodchain in Britain and Europe.

    In Canada, horses are given more than Bute. They get vaccinated for rabies, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, tetnus, strangles, plus other drugs for a variety of diseases, all of which may stay concentrated in their bodies.

    The kill buyers at horse auctions are not too fussy about the medical histories. The horses, many sick and old, get packed into cattle trucks and shipped great distances to the abattoirs, without food or water.

    The production of horsemeat involves unmentionable suffering and cruelty, another reason not to eat it.”


    “Each year, more than 100,000 healthy horses in the United States are shipped across our borders to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.

    These animals suffer from inhumane long-distance transport and are subjected to cruel and clumsy slaughter practices. Consuming meat from American horses is also a health risk: Our horses are raised as companions, athletes or work horses, so they have been routinely given drugs that can render their meat contaminated.

    However, American horsemeat is still sold in Europe. In the last few weeks, European officials and consumer groups have discovered beef burgers for sale in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain that contained horse DNA though it was not labeled as such.

    This isn’t an animal rights issue. It is one of public safety.”


    “BELGIUM, Brussels—A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Humane Society International shows that most European consumers want a ban on imports of horsemeat from countries whose food safety regulations do not meet European Union standards.

    The poll also indicates a lack of consumer awareness about the origins of horsemeat. Most people across the three countries polled mistakenly assumed that horsemeat sold in their country originates either locally or from elsewhere in Europe. In fact, Europe imports a significant proportion of horsemeat sold here from abroad, importing 27,847,700 kg of horsemeat from third countries in 2011 alone. Vast quantities of horsemeat come from non-European countries, including Canada and Mexico, where most of the horses come from the United States. In the US, horses are not raised for human consumption and are therefore commonly given drugs and medications not intended for the food supply.


    “In Canada, Natural Valley Farms in Neudorf, Saskatchewan, was shut down by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2009 for food safety concerns. NVF went into receivership on September 22, 2008, yet horses continued to be slaughtered at the facility by Velda Group, an international Belgian-based company. Velda was infamous in Illinois for numerous environmental charges and convictions at their Cavel International horse slaughter plant that closed business in September 2007.”


    Before 2007 the USA slaughtered horses for dog meat. The increased incidence of cancer in dogs led to a ban in it’s use.


    Almost all the horse meat processed in Canada by the six licensed horse abattoirs is exported.


    Quantity, Kg
    Japan – 2,492,889
    France – 2,344,079
    Switzerland – 947,337
    Mexico – 904,337
    Italy – 370,510
    Czech Republic – 96,952
    Finland – 48,354
    South Africa – 23,618
    United States – 18,606
    Belgium – 15,300
    Swaziland – 12,897

    Jamaica – 7,664

  • http://twitter.com/teampughblog Team Pugh
  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.king.144734 Gary King

    Given all the bad publicity about meat providence, I thought I would share a short film that I made about how wonderful our local farm shop and cafe Hartley Farm is. After watching the film I’m sure you will agree that this is the way we should all be getting our fresh produce. http://youtu.be/gaxEnEPqKcc

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