Horse meat: what happened, and what happens next?

International mafia conspiracy, deadly lasagnes, calls for more regulation - rounded up.

Back when we just thought some horse meat had crept (trotted?) into a few supermarket value burgers, it didn't seem to be something you had to take particularly seriously. What's wrong with eating horse, we cried. They do in Europe, and everyone knows their food is better - in fact, my colleague Charlotte Simmonds put together some delicious-sounding Italian recipes, in case any readers felt inspired to give it a go. At worse, it was felt to be a failure of the supermarket to keep people informed about what they were eating - if something says "beef burger" on the label, it's not really on to fill the packet with horse instead, is it? Jokes were made on Twitter, most of them awful, and the story gradually died away.

Now, though, it's back with a vengence. Aldi and Findus have both withdrawn ready meals from sale after it was alleged that its beef lasagne contained only horse meat. The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, is touring the television stations this morning, urging people not to panic but warning of "more bad news" when further test results are published on Friday. Many of the papers have looked into the story in some detail, and lots of different angles are emerging. Here's your handy guide to what's happened so far.

It's an international mafia conspiracy

Sources close to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency (Defra) told the Observer that the whole horse meat furore was the result of fraud that had an "international dimension". Polish and Italian mafia gangs apparently run vast schemes where they substitute horse meat for beef during the food production process. Owen Paterson said: "I'm concerned that this is an international criminal conspiracy here and we've really got to get to the bottom of it." The Independent on Sunday has investigated the complicated pan-Europe supply chain arrangements that have lead to this situation - read their account here.

Could it make you ill?

The Mail reported that food inspectors are concerned that some of the meat that ended up in the "beef" lasanges could contain E.coli. One of the companies that supplied Findus with meat - French firm Spanghero - had previously been investigated for a similar scare.

Observer science editor Robin McKie writes that there's a potential risk from a drug called bute or phenylbutazone that is given to horses to "relieve pain and treat fevers". If still present in the meat, it can have side effects in humans, such as triggering "a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia". According to the Sunday Telegraph, there is also a possibility that some of the horse meat came from Romania, "where a virus called equine infectious anaemia is endemic, and has led to a ban on live exports".

What are we doing about it?

For now, more tests. There are more results due on Friday, which is why Owen Paterson is talking a lot about "more bad news" this morning. After that, more tests, more regularly - the Food Standards Agency should be doing DNA testing every three months, Paterson has said. The BBC's Andy Moore has said that up til now, the food industry has "relied on a system of self-policing", a phrase that has rather loud echoes of the way we talked about banks after the 2008 crash. An Observer editorial calls for more independent regulation and more on-site testing - expect more discussion of this in the next few days.

Is this BSE all over again?

No. But British farmers are angry at any suggestion it could be. National Farmers' Union president, Peter Kendall has said: "Our members are rightly angry and concerned with the recent developments relating to contaminated processed meat products. The contamination took place post farm-gate which farmers have no control over." However, in one regard, it could be similar. As Judith Woods pointed out in the Telegraph,  both the BSE controversy and now this horse meat problem have affected consumers' trust that what they read on a packet is really what's going to be inside.

Have the papers gone horse gag-mad?

Surprisingly, and almost disappointingly, today's front pages feature very few horse jokes (perhaps indicating that this is now A Serious Story.) Only two splashed on it. The Sunday Telegraph:

And the Independent on Sunday:

I, for one, was sad not to see the Racing Post take it on:


 

A Dartmoor pony. Don't worry, there's no suggestion any of those have ended up in a lasagne. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Show Hide image

Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital