Over the last few weeks many people have been dismayed to discover that in addition to being much-beloved companions and trusted helpers, horses have also become a key ingredient of value meals. Horse meat posing as beef has turned up not only in Ireland and the UK, but also in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
The European Commission has suggested that existing legislation is sufficient to tackle this scandal, but not all MEPs are convinced. British MEP Jill Evans launched a written request to the Commission in the same week that Ireland's food safety authority found the first trace of horse DNA in beef burgers to ask what steps it was taking to find out what happened, how widespread the problem is and whether EU rules on traceability are being implemented properly across the Union. The European Parliament's public health and food safety committee has convened a meeting with officials from the Commission and the European Food Safety Authority on Monday 18 February to discuss the issue.
But this is about much more than Black Beauty ending up on a plate. If people have indeed been peddling horse meat as beef it is also conceivable they have been playing fast and loose with rules designed to protect consumer health
Food is so much more than just the fuel we shovel into our bodies. Yes, we need food to keep our bodies going, but it is also deeply rooted in who we are. What we eat and how we eat says something about what we believe and to what culture, religion and community we belong to.
The European Parliament has always believed in people's right to know where their food comes from, both in terms of location and how it was produced. Some might prefer to buy local, while other will insist on eggs from free-range chickens. But these choices can only be made if trustworthy information is available to them. The question is whether new EU food labelling legislation, which will come into force in December 2014, will deliver that.
The new rules were drawn up to make food labels clearer and ensure consumers have the information they need to make informed choices. However, the European Parliament was unable to push through proposals for food labels to indicate the country of origin of meat used as an ingredient, as well as other products such as dairy, which were vetoed by the Council of ministers. Parliament did manage to extract a commitment that the Commission would produce a report on the possible extension of compulsory country of origin labelling to meat used as an ingredient within two years of the new food labelling rules entering into force. One year later the Commission should look at extending it to other types of meat, milk, unprocessed foods, single ingredient foods and ingredients that make up more than 50% of a food.
It is still not clear how exactly horse meat ended up masquerading as beef in so many products, but MEPs will keep a close eye on all revelations and what they say about current EU legislation and how it is being implemented.