Costs eat into Europe’s food sup­ply

Horse­meat in pur­ported beef prod­ucts is one sign of bro­ken links in the food chain

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY LOUISE LU­CAS AND NEIL BUCK­LEY — Fi­nan­cial Times Buck­ley re­ported from Ras­nov, Tran­syl­va­nia.

lon­don — Out­side the vil­lage of Ras­nov in Tran­syl­va­nia, two cousins un­load ma­nure from a rick­ety wooden cart. Stela, the scrubby 6-year-old mare pulling it across the field stretch­ing away to­ward the snow-capped Bucegi Moun­tains, tosses her head wearily.

Prop­erly cared for, says Florin, 32, the mare may be good for an­other decade of farm work. Af­ter that, “she goes to the abat­toir,” says Nic­u­lai, 17. “And then she’s salami.” As events of re­cent weeks have shown, Stela and her kin may also be­come frozen lasagna, ul­tra­cheap beef­burg­ers or the sort of meat­balls that busy and cost-con­scious par­ents feed their kids.

The ap­pear­ance of horse­meat across Europe in food pur­port­ing to be beef has sparked an out­cry and trig­gered a blame game among politi­cians, the food in­dus­try and su­per­mar­kets. Tons of ready meals and burg­ers have been pulled off store shelves and junked; shop­pers are switch­ing over to less-pro­cessed food­stuffs and veg­e­tar­ian op­tions.

Like Stela, much of our food starts life in a field. Yet this first link in the com­plex food chain is it­self hor­ri­bly frag­mented: The world has more farm­ers than any­thing else. Thus, while multi­na­tional man­u­fac­tur­ers and re­tail­ers like to make much of their will­ing­ness to don Welling­tons and get down on the farm — McDon­ald’s even de­voted a global ad cam­paign to the sub­ject — vis­its and checks are ex­tremely spo­radic.

And re­gard­less of whether an an­i­mal’s early life is bu­colic bliss or con­crete dystopia, it will nearly al­ways end in a slaugh­ter­house.

Abat­toirs have be­come fewer and more ef­fi­cient in re­cent years, but some things are con­stant. Mar­gins are thin as a mem­brane, and the plants re­quire big, ex­pen­sive equip­ment. “The kit you need to chop up chunks of meat is mas­sive and soaks up a lot of en­ergy,” said one former ex­ec­u­tive from the trade. “It’s not what you want in the kitchen.”

And yet that is pre­cisely where abat­toirs have been mi­grat­ing over the past decade or so, he added. The tight profit mar­gins leave scant room for added costs such as trans­port and load­ing, so pro­cess­ing units are in­creas­ingly at­tached or nearby, even if sep­a­rately owned.

If an­i­mals go in through th­ese less-than-pearly gates, they exit as what Karel Wil­liams, an ex­pert on food sup­ply chains at Manch­ester Busi­ness School, calls “de­con­structed Euro-an­i­mals.”

Dif­fer­ent parts of the an­i­mals are sent around the world. The “fifth quar­ter” — con­sist­ing of of­fal, feet and other parts con­sid­ered un­ap­pe­tiz­ing in much of Europe — is in­creas­ingly go­ing to China.

But the bulk goes to re­tail­ers and pro­ces­sors across Europe, as cuts or as con­tain­ers of minced meat. Ex­plain­ing the dif­fi­culty of test­ing at this stage, one former worker de­picts the scene. “You’ve got a block of frozen mush that’s maybe 2-feet-by-2-feet-by-3-feet, and you’re stand­ing in mi­nus-10de­grees tem­per­a­ture. Peo­ple who know say you can tell the dif­fer­ence [be­tween horse­meat and beef ] by look­ing. But in th­ese con­di­tions?”

As be­fits plas­tic-lined boxes filled with meat, they are a com­mod­ity prod­uct, and buy­ers want the best deal they can get. As decades of food de­fla­tion re­versed course in the late 2000s — just as many of the world’s economies tipped into eco­nomic slow­down — shops have been en­gaged in a bat­tle to keep con­sumers by woo­ing them with su­per-cheap food.

Wil­liams talks of trucks lined up out­side abat­toirs in Hol­land at the end of the week, with no idea where they are go­ing un­til the last minute. “You buy over the phone. A chiller truck ar­rives. Next week you buy a dif­fer­ent lot from some­one else,” he said. “What you have is end­less Euro­pean trade whereby bits of an­i­mals go into 40-ton trucks.”

Reg­u­la­tory checks and bal­ances may ex­ist to out­law adul­ter­ation, but they can­not pre­vent it. In­deed, bulk­ing out sta­ples with cheaper in­gre­di­ents has flour­ished as in­comes dwin­dle. In Bri­tain, a com­mon ruse is bulk­ing out bas­mati rice with cheaper grains; across Europe, top­ping up olive oil with cheaper veg­etable vari­ants is an­other fa­vored scam.

Back at the pro­ces­sors, the job lots of meat are banked up. Ba­sic data, such as fat con­tent, are punched into the com­puter, which cal­cu­lates the req­ui­site weights and recipe be­fore set­ting the mixer in mo­tion — and meat boxes are mor­phed into burg­ers.

A sim­i­lar process takes place for lasagna, where the meat ar­rives in frozen pel­lets de­scribed by one worker as be­ing like “a sack­ful of hun­dreds and thou­sands; you put a knife through the bot­tom” and they cas­cade into the mix­ing pot.

What might strike gourmets as dis­dain for food re­flects many fac­tors. The food in­dus­try is in the cross hairs on sev­eral fronts. It will be re­quired to feed an ex­tra 2 bil­lion mouths by 2050, with roughly the same amount of land. Peo­ple are not just eat­ing more, but eat­ing more meat and other re­source-heavy foods.

Mean­while, the in­dus­try is try­ing to an­swer pol­i­cy­mak­ers’ calls for health­ier food — while bat­ting off leg­isla­tive ef­forts to en­sure that they do so. And above all, con­sumers want food that is af­ford­able.

That is as true for din­ner ta­bles in Lon­don or New York as back in Ro­ma­nia, where Sorin Minea, head of the lo­cal food in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tion and him­self in the meat-pro­cess­ing trade, at­tributes the horse­meat scan­dal to pres­sure on costs from big su­per­mar­kets and, ul­ti­mately, con­sumers.

It doesn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to see why a sup­plier might sub­sti­tute horse­meat for beef. Ro­ma­nian slaugh­ter­houses sell horse­meat for about 30 cents a pound; beef goes for about $1.80 a pound.

While beef and pork prices have gone up in re­cent years, “su­per­mar­kets ask to keep the price as cheap as pos­si­ble,” Minea said, echo­ing pro­ces­sors and pro­duc­ers around the world. “For sup­pli­ers to sell at the same price, they must change the recipe — or change the raw ma­te­rial and mix in some­thing else.”

JACQUES BRI­NON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Horse­meat, seen on hooks in a butcher shop in Paris, has been found in school meals, hospi­tal food and restau­rant food across Europe, as the scan­dal over adul­ter­ated meat goes be­yond the su­per­mar­ket.

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