This blog was originally based on a course ran by Professor Nick Gray of the Trinity Centre for the Environment at Trinity College Dublin who also wrote a textbook for the module Facing up to global warming: What is going on and what you can do about it. Now working as an independent consultant, Nick continues to work in the area of environmental sustainability and looking at ways of making a difference without recriminations or guilt. Saving the planet is all about living sustainably.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What the Horsemeat Scandal has Taught Us

 I have no problem eating horsemeat, however, what the recent horsemeat scandal has taught us, is that we can no longer take for granted what we are actually eating or where exactly it is coming from. Not only has this investigation raised questions into both the regulation and traceability of the meat industry in Europe, but it has also highlighted what a globalised and mechanised system the modern food industry is.

Following the discovery by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that Horse DNA was contained within a third of all tested frozen beefburgers and ready meals, a large-scale enquiry was carried out into the origin of these meat products. The enquiry quickly spread to the UK where products such as frozen spaghetti Bolognese sold in supermarkets including Aldi, Tesco and Findus were found to include 100% horsemeat. It was subsequently discovered that the meat supply chain could be traced back through 8 different companies, located in different countries of Europe including Cyprus, Romania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France.

For me, two main aspects have arisen from this scandal. Firstly, in an article written in ‘the Guardian’, it was highlighted that economy beefburgers (cheap, industrialised burgers) are legally allowed to consist of only 47% beef, the remainder made up of protein additives, fat and water (A fact that surely makes the idea of a 100% horsemeat burger suddenly sound a lot more appealing). Secondly, the distance that food is now travelling before it even gets to our plates, a figure that is certainly not decreasing.

In terms of sustainable living, the farm to fork distance is perhaps the most significant aspect that needs to be tackled. In the UK alone, one in four heavy goods vehicles are in fact carrying food. Considering how many tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved each year if less food was transported such long distances, it is clear to see the potential this area has for drastically reducing our carbon footprints. In the USA this problem has actually worsened. In 1997, the average distance travelled by food stood at 6760 km. However, by 2004 this figure had increased to 8240 km.

By making a greater effort to source local goods as well as promoting seasonal diets, we can not only radically cut down the distance which our food is travelling, but also ensure that a higher level of traceability and quality is delivered for all food products. This will also help in both augmenting the local economy as well as decreasing our carbon footprint. The problem with this ideal however, is ultimately cost related. Although it is much cheaper for us to consume food products bought in supermarkets, the true environmental cost of this practise is often overlooked. The sad reality is, that when faced with a decision of spending a little extra on a locally sourced, 100% Irish beefburger, we will usually choose the cheaper, lower quality option sourced from far afield, attached with a substantial carbon footprint.

As it is simply not economically viable for many people to source the generally more expensive local or even national goods, the government needs to take a more active role in creating incentives for people to buy local. Unfortunately, the irony is that the government itself lacks the money to fund such programmes. Unless the general population recognises the importance of buying local, it looks likely that our future consuming habits will continue to seek out the cheapest option.

Patrick Moss

Lawrence, F. (2013) Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide. The Guardian. 15th February. Available at: [accessed 02/04/2013]

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