Costs eat into Europe’s food supply
Horsemeat in purported beef products is one sign of broken links in the food chain
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.”
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.