The scandal was in Europe. It erupted after tests conducted in Ireland found that 37% of randomly tested beef from a major supplier contained horsemeat, and up to 85% had minute traces of pork. It’s a scandal that is even more surprising in that it occurred in Great Britain.
Consider this: After the sensational BSE outbreak a couple of decades back, the result was the destruction of thousands of animals, as well as the implementation of individual animal ID and very strict tracking protocols designed to preclude something like this from ever happening again. It appears, however, that while the internal systems were both robust and dynamic, the controls on imported products were insufficient.
Consumers generally believe that the food products they buy are safe and that the labels and the products actually match up. Of course, we can argue that some of those assumptions are naïve and that every product must be handled properly to ensure safety, and that zero tolerance on some issues is impractical. Yet, we also must realize that every failure harms demand and consumer confidence.
The breakdown in England got me to thinking about the situation here at home. Is there a potential in the U.S. for such a situation? USDA’s final rule on animal disease traceability was just recently published and set to become effective in March. The arrival at this point has been a tortuous path. With animal ID and traceback, some felt it was essential to safeguard the industry, consumers and our markets and wanted 48-hour traceback capabilities. Meanwhile, others thought it was an infringement on trade, and too expensive and cumbersome to commerce to implement.
A Closer Look: Animal Disease Traceability Rule Nearly Locked In
Both sides were probably right and the compromise solution was heralded as a victory by most people. Ironically, while costs and additional paperwork were greatly reduced over the original plan, there will still be additional costs. The additional costs would have been acceptable, except that the traceback capability was so greatly reduced that it will be totally ineffective for what it was designed to do. So, politically we got a system; unfortunately, the system won’t accomplish anything, and we are still going to have more costs.
Perhaps it can be argued that we’re better off with the new animal disease traceability rule than not doing anything. But if we have a health scare, or a disease outbreak, the industry will suffer and consumers will draw their own conclusions about the job we did.
I’m a complete believer in free enterprise and market-based solutions. I believe that government intrusion in the marketplace is almost always counterproductive, and I would never support it on marketing issues of any form. However, when it comes to food safety, the sad reality is that government has a vital role.
It may be true that the phenomenal improvement in food safety, pathogen reduction, etc., this industry has seen in recent years are the result of private enterprise and industry advancements. But the government still needs to police the system to provide the needed assurances.