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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le grand business de la mal-bouffe

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

Big Business in Junk Food

Translated Saturday 23 February 2013, by Kristina Wischenkamper

Horse meat and processed animal protein ... As the Agricultural Fair opens its doors in Paris, these two cases cast a critical light on the food-processing industry caught in the jaws of the financial markets.

What is the link between a Romanian horse and a fish farm? This not a joke, and the question is rather spoiling the good humour at the opening of the 50th International Exhibition of Agriculture. Be it the so-called horse meat scandal or the EU reapproval of the use of bone meal in fish feed, the news over the last two weeks has put food safety back on the menu, and accompanied it by a large dose of public mistrust.

On first sight there is no apparent link between the two cases, other than they have both brought to light the fraudulent practices of a food processing industry prey to financial greed.

Labelling and fraud

The first scandal came to light in early February in Ireland after horse meat was detected in 29 products supposed to be beef. Barely had the British Food Safety Agency announced the news, than the story was already raging across Europe. First came France, where Findus frozen foods, whilst testing 18 lasagne dishes made by the French group Comigel, discovered that in 11 of them between 60 and 100% of the beef was in fact horsemeat. On 9 February, the Federation of Trade and Distribution (Fédération du commerce et de la distribution—FCD) announced the withdrawal of non-compliant products across seven supermarket chains. Similar measures were taken in Germany, Bulgaria and Cyprus. In Spain, Nestlé, the global number 1 food processing firm, has withdrawn from sale two of its beef-based dishes. Investigations are ongoing to determine who is at cause, but the finger is already being pointed at Spanghero, in southern France, which seemingly knowingly mislabelled its products, as being at the origin of the fraud.

The case is now in the hands of the judiciary. "It’s really not the most important thing," notes Jacques Cossart, economist and general secretary of Attac’s scientific council. "The most interesting point is the astonishing number of intermediaries between the producer and the consumer. "Spanghero, based in Castelnaudary, in the Aude, had bought frozen meat from a trader in Cyprus, who had subcontracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands, who was being supplied by a slaughterhouse and meat cutter located in Romania, as Benoît Hamon, Minister of Economy, pointed out in the early days of the scandal.

Making a killing

With a total of eight intermediaries, this is a chain that facilitates neither checks nor traceability. A chain, however, that allows a nice financial killing to be made on the fresh food market, as Jacques Cossart notes. "You can’t stock meat or vegetables in the same way that you can cereals. With meat and vegetables you can’t speculate on futures markets, as you can with wheat or rice, where harvests are bought and sold according to supply and demand, provoking the notorious price spikes. This form of trading is much less prevalent in meat trading”, continues the economist. “This means profit margins are made at each link in the chain.” Although they are relatively small each time. “So it is by multiplying the intermediaries that the market sustains itself.” "To multiply the pennies each intermediary relies on a high volume of merchandise. So prices are the lowest at the source.

Where is the link with bone meal — or processed animal proteins (PAT) as it is now called? The European Union earlier this week reauthorized their use in fish farming and announced plans ultimately to also allow their use in pig and poultry farms. Although banned in 2001 after two mad cow disease outbreaks (1996 and 2000), the question of their reintroduction into Europe has been in the pipeline for a long time. Since 2007, the European Commission has been funding — to the tune of 1.7 million euros — research into making them acceptable to the public. Proposals were put forward in 2009 and 2011, amongst others, but were postponed due to lack of popular acceptance. In France, the National Agency for Food Safety, Environment and Labour has already delivered an unfavorable opinion.

Then, why such efforts to reintroduce them? To compensate for the soaring prices of cereals, is in substance the European Commission’s response — soaring prices that are crashing the meat market.

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