A reminder of the 2013 horsemeat scandal could rouse safety fears


In 2013, the UK Food Standards Agency asked the City of London police to investigate a fraud following discovery of horsemeat in high street beef burgers by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Tests showed that burgers and ready meals sold by leading retailers and fast food outlets contained undeclared horse and pig DNA.

Four and a half years later, a London businessman has been convicted, which will be the first in the UK. Widespread media coverage of the conviction might provoke a renewed consumer caution and mistrust towards food products sold by retailers and foodservice vendors.

How can meat retail overcome a refreshed mistrust?

Globally, most consumers are receptive towards trustworthiness and 'risk-free' credentials in food products. In a 2016 GlobalData survey, 64% of respondents said that familiar / trustworthy / risk-free products are 'always' or 'often' influential to them when choosing food products.

Transparency typically comes with a higher price tag. The beef products adulterated with horse were mostly bottom-of-the-range bargain lines. In 2013, discount frozen burgers were being sold for around 25p per quarter pound when the market price for real beef of the grade suitable for burgers was 43p per quarter pound. Some consumers could, therefore, opt for premium products in the hope of obtaining safer foodstuffs.

'Organic' labelled meat might see increased demand from consumers who are not sceptical towards the claim for organic origin. According to a 2013 GlobalData survey, 31% of global consumers believed that a major drawback of organic grocery products was that they did not trust that they were truly organic.

Brands are aware of consumers’ doubts and some have introduced more conscientious traceability.

An extreme example is Salty Girl Seafood, which last year launched a range of frozen fish in the US that enables consumers to 'trace' every individual product. It did so by flagging each product with 'trace this fish' and revealing the exact location it was caught, the type of fishing gear used, and a four digit code to enter at the brand’s website for more information. This kind of sourcing disclosure is more convincing than the standard organic and free-range labels, but still niche. 

With the horsemeat scandal in the UK media again, consumer scepticism towards the quality and safety of meat might resurface. Retailers and brands need to be prepared for such development and strive to market good quality products in a convincing way.