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[2013.01.22] Foods we DON’T get to eat!
The hair-raising horsemeat debacle has opened the floodgates to an unsuspecting public demanding to know what we’re buying.

Not for the first time, lack of clear food labelling information sends us all in a tailspin, understandably alternating between shock, distrust and downright anger.

Yet sales of once ‘off-menu’ meats, including horsemeat, venison and veal, are proving big sellers despite the squeeze on shoppers’ pockets. And proof is in the pudding: Spain’s economy showed it wasn’t so down-trodden in 2012 as horsemeat sales jumped 250 per cent in Andalucía – the southern region renown worldwide for its equestrian heritage and now a firm leader in the horsemeat consumption stakes.

Production of the region’s 3,197 tons of horsemeat for human consumption is spurred on by the financial crisis. High horse maintenance costs, low demand once they’re put out to pasture, and increasing appetites for horsemeat in stews, casseroles and the like, have combined to create an impromptu other-world market, previously the preserve of the French whose gastronomic love affair with the species is well-documented, while Italians, Belgians and Greeks are similarly partial to this type of meat.

British Prime Minister David Cameron ate venison, among other delights, during a shooting party in the Scottish Highlands last autumn. At the other extreme – socially and geographically – this same game was a hit on The Schnitzel Haus Christmas menu in Fuengirola, Andalucía, with block bookings of diners devouring the festive red meat, and, for white game devotees, a signature Wiener Schnitzel crafted and served by authentic Austro-Hungarian hands.

Proof, too, from a Spain-based German butcher and specialist meat chef aiming to replicate the success of his former wild meat restaurant located in the Hamburg suburbs. Hans, ‘The Original Hamburger’, sees soaring consumer interest in wild meat as untapped demand waiting to be satisfied.

He recounts the days when he’d regularly sell out of the 50 kilos per week of freshly slain deer provided by his father – a Master Hunter christened ‘The Jägermeister’ for his high tally of hunt trophies, so named after the famous digestive drink sporting stag horns as its logo. Venison Carpaccio, leg roasts, steaks and goulash were specific requests by guests booking ‘wild menus’ for up to 70 people.

“Germans, Scandinavians and the Spanish love wild meats, game and sausages,” explains Hans. “I’m encouraged that British tastes are increasingly warming to game as a tasty, affordable alternative to the standard meats. People won’t worry if they’re eating horsemeat if they’re given information to make a choice.”

THE BIGGER PICTURE
While UK and Irish supermarkets withdrew beefburgers containing horsemeat from their shelves, it’s not just undeclared ingredients in prepared meats we should worry about. Efforts to stop dangerous foods reaching our tables won’t prevent bootleg traders from trying and are reminders of the challenges we constantly face.

Fresh mint from Morocco, dried figs from Turkey, aubergines from the Dominican Republic and coffee from China seem innocuous items at first glance, sharing supermarket shelf-space with hundreds of regular foodstuffs available year-round from all corners of the globe.

Less appetising is their appearance on a European Union blacklist of 3,437 consignments of foods detained, rejected and destroyed by vigilant border control officials during 2012. A significant fall from the 9,157 consignments recorded in 2011, yet a worrying statistic when one banned consignment is one too many.

No category escapes unscrupulous traders’ attempts to infiltrate the food chain – their sights set firmly on profit with scant regard for consumers’ well-being.

The intriguing list of seizures at Europe’s sea, air, road and rail ports is compiled daily by the European Commission’s Health and Consumer Unit under its Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

Everything from feed materials, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, confectionery, cereals and bakery products to meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, and prepared dishes and snacks to ices and desserts, cocoa, coffee, tea, wine and natural mineral water prove we’re under constant threat from food poisoning. Who’d have thought food supplements and organic foods could harm us?

This roll-call of food alerts, information requests and border rejections began on 2 January 2013 with too many insecticides in vegetables from India and too much mercury in frozen swordfish from Vietnam. A day later, unauthorised colourings prevented the distribution of pomegranate juice from Russia. By week two, sultanas from Turkey were found with high counts of moulds and yeasts, and toxins in chilli powder from Pakistan were unwelcome.

ACTION STATIONS
What life-threatening consequences could we have suffered if the protective guardians of our health hadn’t detected these items at Border Inspection Points? And in a global economy, how confident can we be that product tracking from manufacture and packaging abroad to transportation and retail overseas are as diligently monitored as EU Member States are compelled to do?

Asked about the procedures involved in the physical destruction of seized foods – i.e. where they’re taken, how many hours or days after seizure they’re destroyed, minimum and maximum fines or other sanctions imposed on offenders, and how fines are collected or sanctions applied, the Commission relies on Member States’ individual responsibility to inform the RASFF of import infringements which are then added to its database for appropriate action.

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