Editorial: Who been eating cheating meat?

Meat's meat and a man's got to eat.

It's not a particularly well-known saying, nowadays, partly because it's unfussy to fault. A very, very big fault, as the European horsemeat scandal attests.

Routine testing in Ireland uncovered it. Not that this will lead to eruptions of applause for the rigours of that routine. People will want to know why the discovery didn't come a lot earlier.

It would be surprising indeed if it doesn't transpire that this meat masquerade is widespread.

Or, unhappily, if horsemeat hasn't slyly found its way on to the plates of unsuspecting New Zealanders. We import huge quantities of various types of meat, including prepared meals.

Ministry of Primary Industries officials say imported foods are regularly monitored and there are strong systems to protect against illegal substitutions.

But regularity doesn't automatically mean diligently. The system appears to rely heavily on the random collection of about 300 meat samples from coldstores around the country each year.

Here's where the phrase "as far as it goes" springs to mind, particularly given the scale of importation.

And, as Federated Farmers points out, European killing, processing and packing systems are far more fractured than those in New Zealand.

New Zealand's apparent contentment with the extent of its lucky-dip testing processes means that the authorities cannot even verify whether Findus beef lasagne, which is one of the most high-profile recalled products throughout Europe, has arrived on our shores. Probably not but possibly so, apparently.

The big scare, quite apart from the sheer deceit behind the scandal, and associated matters of culinary sensitivity, is that medicines given to horses and dangerous to people may be present in the meat.

There's certainly a level of sweaty palmed curiosity about whether the vet drug phenylbutazone might be in there, given its potential to harm those who handle the raw meat.

It's not as if the fraudsters themselves are liable to have been at all scrupulous about safety tests at their end. If they cheat, they cheat.

Given the extent to which New Zealand is reliant on its exports, there are limits to which the nation is liable to evangelise on behalf of eating only what's produced locally.

But everyone, wherever they are, should be entitled to know what's really in their food wherever it has come from. The degree of confidence we have in that must surely influence consumer choices.

You have to think that, on that basis, our exports to Europe should be looking comparatively better than ever.

For their part Europeans are proposing tougher tests at their end based on DNA sampling. The European Commission health commissioner, Tonio Borg, seems to be hammering the message that this is essentially a fraud problem, not a labelling problem. Surely to goodness people haven't struggled to understand that.

It's not just a matter of catching the mad butchers, nice though that would be, and tracking down the straying horsemeat. Regulatory controls and product testing regimes need a serious overhaul. It has been two decades since the previous really substantial shakeup of meat supplies came about, and it took a scandal - BSE - to provoke it.

Meanwhile, the countdown is on for the first Your View letter from our vegan buddies . . .

The Southland Times