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Food Fraud: The Horse Meat Scandal

This article explores the horse meat scandal in Europe, the complexity of the food chain and fraudulent behaviour during crises.
Three horses in a field

The horse meat scandal was a European-wide example of food fraud in which certain foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat.

In December 2012, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Ireland tested a range of frozen foods as part of their normal proactive monitoring activities. These tests showed unknown DNA to be present in the samples. They tested the samples again for bovine (cow), porcine (pig) and equine (horse) DNA. The results came back showing that over a third of the products contained equine DNA and 85% of the total products contained pig. The FSAI released their findings in January 2013 and the horse meat scandal occurred in the following weeks throughout the industry.

Following these findings, the European Commission launched an EU wide 3-month random sampling DNA testing programme for processed meats. These tests revealed that “beef” in frozen lasagne and spaghetti bolognese made by French manufacturer Comigel was up to 100% horse. It was clear the crisis was not confined to the UK and Ireland, but was an issue across the EU.


The intention for fraud is financial gain, however, it can have a number of additional consequences. Food fraud:

  • Cheats customers for financial gain
  • Denies the rights of customer and subsequent consumers to make an informed choice, especially if based on ethical issues (e.g. addition of genetically modified feed)
  • Reduces consumers trust in the food chain
  • Creates economic and sustainability concerns, evident in food and feed businesses which are hit with the cost of recalling products and the subsequent impact on brand reputation
  • Places pressure on small to medium sized enterprises to purchase cheaper ingredients in order to compete and sustain their business
  • Introduces the unknown into the supply chain (e.g. potential contaminants) which can lead to severe illness or death depending on the potency of the materials used and the susceptibility of the animal/consumer

Response to the horse meat scandal

In a bid to restore the consumers trust in our food chain, the UK Government commissioned a report into the horse meat scandal to establish how it happened and how we can prevent it from happening again. This report is known as the Elliott Report, published in July 2014. Chris Elliott provided eight recommendations which should be considered together:

  • Consumer First: Government should put the needs of consumers in relation to food safety and food crime prevention as top priority. The government should work with industry and regulators to: prevent contamination, adulteration and false claims about food; make consumers aware of food crime, food fraud and its implications; and maintain consumer confidence in food.
  • Zero Tolerance: Fraud and food crime should be punished in the hardest possible way to deter criminals. The government should develop whistle blowing procedures and encourage industry sampling and checking across the entire food chain.
  • Intelligence Gathering: The FSA should share intelligence with the industry and the industry should have its own save haven to collect, collate and analyse information.
  • Laboratory Services: Laboratory services should be standardized and available to all in audit and inspection.
  • Audit: More effective unannounced audits with consideration of food fraud should be encouraged.
  • Government Support: Specific, Attainable, Realistic and Timely (SMART) government support should be provided, along with an independent FSA and a National Food Safety and Food Crime Committee.
  • Leadership: There is a clear need for leadership and cohesion when dealing with food fraud and food crime. Active enforcement and significant penalties are required. The new Food Crime Unit under the FSA should take the lead role on national incidents.
  • Crisis Management: Where any serious food safety or food crime incidents occur, the government should protect public health against risks and work with the FSA to implement contingency plans in case of another food safety and/or food crime incident.

Surveillance and Mitigation Measures

The act of food fraud is to go unnoticed. This can make surveillance and mitigation measures difficult to assign and requires a proactive approach as countermeasures can become redundant very quickly.

  • Vulnerability Assessment

The aim of mitigation and surveillance is to make food and feed production, manufacture, retail and food service environments hostile and difficult for the offender to operate in. In order to do this, the literature expresses the need to predict important long term issues, assign appropriate control measures and ensure effective preventative action (VACCP).

  • Detection Methods

The ever evolving nature of opportunistic fraud also requires detection methods to test food and feed authenticity. The methods applied across the food chain include: spectroscopy, isotopic analysis, chromatography, electric nose, polymerase chain reaction, enzyme linked immunosorbent assay and thermal analysis, and their combination with multivariate data analysis software. These methods must be evaluated in full for ease of use, rapidity and cost whilst surviving the rigours of a legal process to provide a sufficient deterrent.

  • Governance

It is of utmost importance that deterrence of food fraud is implemented by each player in the supply chain and verified and governed by suitable guardians such as regulatory bodies and recognized third party certification schemes.

  • Task Forces

The nature of fraud in the food and feed chain and current information gaps makes evaluating and assigning effective and efficient countermeasures one of the most challenging aspects of assuring product integrity across the supply chain. Thus, task forces and working groups are increasingly coming together to mitigate against fraud.

The fight against fraud is difficult. But with the use of good analysis and good intelligence, together with efforts of the industry and police forces we can reduce the opportunities and address the vulnerabilities in the food system.

More information about food fraud

The Elliott Report outlined the need for the industry to create a safe haven to collect, collate, analyse and disseminate information and intelligence to protect the interests of the consumer.

A number of initiatives have been developed which enable a collaborative and targeted approach to addressing fraud in the food and feed chain. These include:


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Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

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