30.04.2019

Horse meat trial: Judgements made after six years, but another scandal is possible

  • Transparency and food safety

Debate: How can the EU protect citizens from food scandals?

The four defendants in the Spanghero case, named after the French company that sold horse meat instead of beef, were handed their sentences in Paris on 16 April. The judgement is less severe than the prosecutor demanded in the trial. Six years after the scandal that shook the whole of Europe, foodwatch notes that consumers are still not sufficiently protected against food fraud. It is becoming increasingly urgent to reform the system that allows this scale of deception.

When the case left the UK at the beginning of 2013 to extend to the whole of Europe, it revealed the tricks of an entire industry. More than 4.5 million fraudulent meat products were sold in a dozen European countries. The investigation showed the incredible trade in horse meat bought in Romania and Canada from Dutch traders whose company "Draap Trading" was based in Cyprus. The horse meat crossed Europe and was renamed at "Spanghero" to pretend to be something it was not: French beef. It was then sold to large manufacturers of ready meals, but was also used for private label products of retail chains, for sausages or Merguez. The Spanghero process has shown that every link in the chain had an interest in fraud. According to the prosecution, this was a "case of the century".

Fraud of rare importance

Four defendants appeared for "deception" and "organised gang fraud". The offence of organised gang fraud was ultimately not punished. 

Jan Fasen, the Dutch trader, received the "hardest" sentence with two years imprisonment and a permanent ban on working in the meat sector. The court issued an arrest warrant against him. Mr Fasen is currently in Spain, where he is involved in a similar case. His right hand man, Hans Windmeijer, has been sentenced to one year in prison. 

Jacques Poujol, former head of Spanghero, was fined EUR 100 000 and sentenced to two years in prison, 18 months of which was suspended. However since he had already been in custody for 4 months, the judge responsible for enforcing sentences may decide to adjust this rate. Mr Poujol is prohibited for two years from carrying on any activity linked to the meat sector. The other former director of Spanghero, Patrice Monguillon, received a 12 month suspended sentence. Spanghero's turnover between February and December 2012 in horse meat ("beef make-up") alone amounted to €1,900,704. 

One scandal can cover another: The two Frenchmen and the Dutchman J. Fasen were also condemned for importing 65 tonnes of mechanically separated sheep meat (MSM), which has been banned from import into the European Union since the BSE crisis.

Lessons not learned

This case has undoubtedly triggered a series of actions by governments and public authorities, including the creation of a European network for better cooperation between Member States, the so-called Food Fraud Network. In France, the maximum penalty for deception has been increased almost tenfold and the indication of the origin of meat in ready meals has been compulsory since 2017. 
But six years after the horse meat scandal, the situation is still unsatisfactory and it is urgent that steps are taken to go much further. The current system has allowed millions of eggs illegally contaminated with fipronil to land on our plates. Horses with fake "equine" passports are still traded in the EU today without consumers being informed. Supermarket chains, which are supposed to guarantee the legal conformity of the products they sell, can still present themselves as victims of fraud because of the lack of clear legal requirements for their inspection obligations. Instead of being held accountable for the sale of fraudulent products, they remain unpunished.

Illegal substances and practices are not checked

Excuses like ‘It's illegal, so let's not check it out’ have been heard in 2017 when the Fipronil scandal became public. Because fipronil is a banned substance that had been added to poultry house disinfectants to combat a poultry parasite, there was no longer a check in place to test its presence. The various players in the process of horse meat fraud have also made similar statements: DNA tests on meat had shown that it was not meat from cattle but from horses. But such tests were not mandatory in 2013, so none of the players in the chain took the time to test the species. Even though highly sensitive animal species detection methods are available today, they are still not legally required in the EU, even six years after the horse meat scandal.

Trade with horses not fit for human consumption continues

Fraudsters still find it easy to bring horses into the food chain with fake "equine" passports due to a lack of detailed specifications for quality assurance obligations, a lack of official information obligations towards consumers, inadequate traceability systems and insufficient control personnel. In 2018 alone, France was affected by this fraud at least four times, as the European rapid alert system RASFF shows (July, October, November). Germany is still affected by this fraud in 2019. Obviously in some cases recalls have been issued, but we know almost nothing about them. On paper, EU food law - Regulation (EC) 178/2002 - is intended to provide consumers with a high level of protection. In theory, the traceability of food throughout the supply chain must be guaranteed. In reality, this is far from being the case.

Supermarkets must be held legally accountable 

Scandal after scandal - horse meat, fipronil, lactalis - the major food chains have so far been able to get away unscathed. Six years ago, many supermarkets sold sausages or ready meals made from horse meat under their own brands and advertised them as beef. Consumers were deceived, but supermarkets were not held accountable. During the Spanghero trial they portrayed themselves as victims with the card "We didn't know". This must change, because potentially dangerous or fraudulent foods are often not identified until they have been sold and consumed. The risk is passed on to consumers.

What needs to change

European legislation neither provides for complete traceability systems nor requires adequate quality assurance measures from manufacturers and food chains. In the event of a clear case of food fraud, it does not even oblige authorities to publish information immediately. Citizens are left in the dark. With each new scandal, new evidence of long overdue improvements come to light. And every time we see that it is too late - we have already consumed these products. 

foodwatch will continue to demand fundamental improvements in European food law. The recently completed amendment to the General Food Law (VO 178/2002) is not enough. Traceability, controls, sanctions and above all transparency of the authorities must be improved in the interests and for the benefit of all EU citizens. We have a right to know.