Horsegate – 10 years on from the biggest food scandal of our time


The horsemeat scandal – or horsegate as it later became known as – was a food industry scandal in parts of Europe in 2013, in which foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat. The issue came to light on 15 January 2013, when it was reported that horse DNA had been discovered in frozen beef burgers sold in several Irish and British supermarkets, and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) announced that it had detected horse DNA in some burgers produced by Irish and British firms and sold in Irish and UK supermarkets. The discovery was described as “extremely worrying” and “unacceptable” by the FSAI, and led to a range of products being removed from sale. The scandal then spread to other countries, including Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, and Switzerland. The issue was a major food industry scandal in the UK and Ireland, with numerous food recalls and millions of burgers removed from sale in supermarkets.

Understandably, businesses have been eager to disassociate themselves from the devastating impact Horsegate had on the sector.

As the 10 year anniversary is upon us, here at QADEX we have taken a deep dive into what happened to cause the biggest food scandal of our time, and have things really changed for the better since? Watch our video below for a recap.


Horsegate – lessons learnt

So what happened?

The horsemeat crisis occurred when beef was substituted for horse meat in the supply chain and resulted in the sale of several food items in the UK. The scandal, which was first discovered in Ireland, quickly spread over all of Europe. Numerous supply networks were compromised by the horsemeat scandal, which also caused the recall of millions of products. Additionally, several of the top brands on the UK market saw a significant decline in consumer confidence.


Where and How?

The Food Standards Agency Ireland (FSAI) examined a variety of frozen foods in December 2012. The samples were retested for equine (horse), porcine (pig), and bovine (cow) DNA after the testing revealed the presence of unknown DNA in the samples. According to the findings, 85% of all items contained pig DNA, and nearly one-third of them contained equine DNA. The FSAI published its results in January 2013, and the industry-wide horsemeat crisis surfaced in the weeks that followed.

How vulnerable the food supply chain is to food criminality was one of the issues the incident brought to light. The FSA encouraged business to test all of its beef products for horse after the FSAI announced its findings. These tests showed that up to 100% of the “beef” in frozen lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese produced by the French company Comigel was actually horse. Comigel provided Tesco, Aldi, and Findus with products. Then across Europe, inquiries into how horsemeat ended up in particular meals unravelled.


What was the impact of horsegate on the consumer?

Horsegate had a lot of negative effects, not the least of which were the victims who were the consumers. As a result of this food crime, consumers suffered financial losses when they paid for beef but inadvertently received a cheaper substitute made of horsemeat.

They were further victimised when they consumed horse without knowing if it had been tainted with illicit drugs like phenylbutazone (commonly known as Bute). Bute is a substance that is administered to horses but not for human consumption. Any horse that has had Bute therapy is ineligible to consume humans.

Finally, customers suffered psychologically as a result of mistakenly eating an animal that many people see as a companion. Some individuals may have gone through trauma as a result of feeling guilty and repulsed after consuming an animal that wasn’t often viewed as livestock.


What was the impact of horsegate on the retailers involved?

The horsemeat scandal had a significant negative impact on the retailers involved. Many of the products that were found to contain horsemeat were produced by suppliers to major retailers, and the scandal led to a loss of consumer trust in those retailers. As a result, some of the retailers affected by the scandal saw a decline in sales and an increase in negative publicity.

The scandal also led to increased scrutiny of the supply chain and food labelling practices, with regulators and customers becoming more concerned about the accuracy and transparency of information about the origins and contents of food products. This put pressure on retailers to improve their supply chain management and food labelling practices, and to increase their efforts to ensure the authenticity and quality of the products they sell.

Overall, the horsemeat scandal had a major impact on the reputation and financial performance of the retailers involved, and highlighted the importance of effective supply chain management and transparency in the food industry.


Horsegate – Lessons learnt

The Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) commissioned an investigation into the horsemeat crisis to determine how it occurred and what actions could be made to prevent it from happening again in an effort to regain consumer trust. The Elliott Review, the document’s official name, was released in 2013.

The Elliott Review examined the flaws in our food supply chain and made suggestions for fixing them. Its goal was to address growing concerns about the method employed to prevent, catch, and punish food crime. The review’s recommendations should help safeguard the food industry and rebuild consumer trust. The eight pillars of food integrity must be taken into account collectively.

We learned from the horsemeat crisis just how vulnerable the food business is to deception and crime. The Elliott Review made it very evident how food fraud and other crimes had previously been unrecordable in their full scope.

The Elliott Review contacted the territorial police forces in England and Wales in an effort to estimate the extent of food crime, and they expressed difficulty in acquiring this data. These crimes were handled by no one central organisation, and records were not kept in a common database. This prevented you from looking up crimes involving food fraud or other types of food crime. The industry’s response to the request for proof of food fraud was similarly insufficient, either because the issues were trivial or previously well-known.

In the fight against food fraud, this lack of accountability and centralization are detrimental. In fact, the fundamental reason that criminals have been able to commit culinary crimes with such ease is because of the loopholes and “under the radar” strategy they have used. The horsemeat incident is an illustration of how criminals can get into legal companies’ supply chains and have a significant influence on the entire sector as well as on specific consumers.


Where are we now?

Steps have been taken to put Elliott’s 8 pillars into practise. For the purpose of assisting with intelligence collecting and investigations, the National Crime Unit (NCU) was created. As the report recommended, the NCU should ideally have its own legal authority to conduct investigations and make arrests, just like the Dutch unit does. They do, however, collaborate extensively with Europol and the Food Fraud Network, and their sustained participation and cooperation in the fight against food fraud will only be beneficial.

Authenticity testing has significantly increased in the wake of Horsegate. It is now conducted as a part of normal industry audit activity and entails planned and focused testing. A second round of coordinated pan-European testing for the presence of horse meat DNA in beef products was started in April 2014. Only 0.61% of the samples tested positive during the second round of testing, a significant improvement.

Undoubtedly, significant measures have been made to help make our food safer and less susceptible to food fraud and other crimes, but there is always more that can be done to combat this constantly evolving crime.


How can QADEX help?

QADEX has a range of solutions to support your cost effective transformation of food safety, customer complaints or supply chain transparency. Talk to us today.