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Romania and the Horse Meat Scandal

March 3, 2013 - Ioana Burtea - Bez kategorii

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Horse meat is on everyone’s lips these days. Most likely, literally as well as figuratively. The scandal that started in mid-January and seemed like another endearing phase in Romanian-British relations quickly spread across the continent and all the way to Asia.

Countries like France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Italy and even China have all reported detecting horse meat in frozen products based on minced beef. Several types of lasagne, tortellini, ravioli and pizza from brands like Findus, Nestle and Picard have been withdrawn from supermarket shelves and tested in laboratories. According to French and British authorities, at least one circuit of meat distribution in Europe identified Romania as the country of origin for the mislabelled horse meat. Another transport seems to have come from Cyprus.

European authorities are now trying to establish whether these cases are connected to one another and were orchestrated by a transnational crime organisation or if they are dealing with isolated frauds.

Whatever the origin of the meat is and regardless of how it was labelled – in Romania or anywhere else along the chain of distribution – there are some facts which cannot be ignored. Horse meat and carcasses do not look like beef or cow carcasses. Even if the meat was packed and shipped as beef, the sanitary authorities in the countries of distribution should have been noticed – and they probably did. For example, the head of the French group Findus, Christophe Guillon, said that the horse meat used in lasagne had a French stamp certifying it was beef. The distributor responsible for this mix-up seems to be Spanghero, also a French company, which applied the stamp. This is not to say Romanian or Cypriot producers and distributors had no role in the scam – they may have very well participated, but it is unlikely that they acted alone.

The only clear aspect of this international horse meat “crisis”, as it was named by the European Union, is that no one can name a country of origin with precision. Some of the meat came from Romania, some from Cyprus, but it does not account for the other numerous transports. In response to the large number of cases, the European Union has launched a plan to clarify the situation and establish how much of the meat contained a potentially dangerous analgesic called phenylbutazone – not that any cases of health problems have been reported so far. In addition, the European Commission will release a report after finding out where the horse meat came from. The document will, most likely, be made public at the end of the summer.

The EC’s reaction and solution to the problem are reasonable. Finding the people responsible for distributing horse meat labelled as beef and bringing them to justice is the only thing that should matter. In the meantime, sanitary authorities, producers and distributors are too busy pointing fingers and passing the dead cat around instead of working together to clarify the situation. As for the Romanian authorities, the president of the Sanitary-Veterinary National Authority for Food Safety (ANSVSA), Mihai Turcanu, concluded the meat was labelled appropriately in Romania, but “who knows what they (the intermediaries) did with it afterwards”. And the dead cat moves along, despite the fact that horse meat labelled as beef was discovered in a facility near Bucharest just a week before Mr Turcanu’s statement.

Part of the Romanian press had its own journey to denial since the scandal started. Initial reporting merely presented the facts as the cases surfaced one by one – first Britain, then France, then the rest of Europe, with several fingers pointing at Romania. The few commentaries on the subject focused on the corruption inside the ANSVSA and its mishandlings, as well as on the habit of Western countries to blame anything bad on Romanians.

As the scandal progressed and the question of origin became more blurry, some articles stopped mentioning Romania as a suspect at all. Several “investigations” later claimed there is proof that Romania was not to blame for mislabelling the horse meat – the argumentation was based on a receipt for one minor transport to Holland, labelled “horse meat”. Surely, this does not prove that all transports from all Romanian farms were labelled appropriately. It does not prove much at all, except a tendency of the national media to defend the honour of the country as if it were a duty.

It is true this scandal does not reflect well on Romania’s already damaged image. However, the citizens and the press should neither feel obliged nor be forced by European backlashes to come up with excuses and “look on the bright side” speeches. Romanian journalists shouldn't try to defend their country as if all its 18 million citizens participated in this plot, as if a blurry picture of a receipt can change everything. The solution can’t be to force a positive image on Europe – it is a desperate tactic that will always backfire.

On the other hand, Europeans should understand very clearly that this situation, this new scandal, involving Romania again, does not justify universal truths or generalisations about Romanians. Neither does it facilitate connections with the different controversies about Romanian immigrants. This shouldn’t be very hard to understand, unless Europe is looking for a scapegoat.

As mentioned before, the important thing right now is to realise this is a problem which concerns all European states and all distributors and producers of meat. All anyone can do now is cooperate, be transparent about the documentation which accompanied the shipments, and wait for the European Commission’s investigation to end. There is scarcely any historical proof that pointing the finger has ever solved anything.

This text is published as part of an ongoing cross-publication partnership with Europe & Me magazine.

Ioana Burtea is a writer with Europe & Me magazine. As a journalism graduate currently based in London, she studies creative writing and is carrying out research for her first non-fiction book. Ioana also worked as a reporter for Mediafax News Agency in Bucharest for almost four years, covering the Ministry of Administration and Interior.

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