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 Aldi and Findus have both withdrawn ready meals from sale after it was alleged that its beef lasagne contained only horse meat.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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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Taxation without benefits: how our tax system increases inequality

We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Tax may not be the burning issue on everyone’s minds over the next month, but the Panama Papers leak has proven that the thorny issues of who pays what, and what level of tax is fair, are ones that are never too far away from the public consciousness.

One of the most important annual publications on tax is the Office for National Statistics’ Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. Published today, it shows, among other things, the proportion of income paid in tax by people at different points on the income spectrum. This may sound like the natural domain of the data nerd, but it actually tells us some rather interesting facts about our system of taxes and benefits.

First, the good news. Our much maligned welfare system is in fact a beacon of progressiveness, drastically reducing the level of income inequality we see in this country. In fact, overall, taxes and benefits are quite substantially redistributive. Without them, the income of the richest 20 per cent of households would be 14 times higher than the poorest 20 per cent. With them, that gap falls to only four times.

The benefit system as a whole decreases the Gini coefficient, the most frequently used measure of inequality, by 14 percentage points. For anyone who sees taxes and benefits as a key component in reducing economic inequality, or boosting the incomes of the poorest, or, frankly, tackling social injustice, this is rather welcome news.

But now for the bad news.

While our welfare system is undoubtedly progressive, the same cannot be said of our tax system when looked at in isolation. The poorest face a disproportionately heavy tax burden compared to the richest, paying 47 per cent of their income in tax, compared to just 34 per cent for the richest. Last year (2013/14) this difference was 45 per cent – 35 per cent, and the year before (2012/13) the gap was 43 per cent – 35 per cent. So while the proportion of income paid in tax has fallen slightly for the richest, it has increased for the poorest.

While some taxes like income tax are substantially progressive, those such as VAT and Council Tax are not. Even after adjusting for rebates and Council Tax Benefit, the poorest 10 per cent pay 7.1 per cent of their income in council tax while the richest 10 per cent pay only 1.5 per cent.

Should this matter, if our system of benefits continues to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Well, yes, not least because that system is under severe pressure from further cuts. But there are other good reasons to focus on the tax system in isolation from the benefit system.

Polling by Ipsos MORI has shown that the public believes that the tax system by itself reduces inequality, and it is often spoken of by politicians as if that is the case. We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax, for example, when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Understanding why the tax system does not by itself reduce inequality is therefore important for both thinking about how tax revenues could be better raised, and for understanding the importance of the benefit system in narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest.

John Hood is Acting Director of the Equality Trust