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Horsemeat saga sparks school meal scrutiny

Quality of lunches served at UK schools under spotlight as authorities scramble to limit damage of scandal.
Last Modified: 25 Feb 2013 10:34
Horsemeat has been found in school lunches, which are often prepared off-site by caterers [AP]

London, United Kingdom - The food served to children at schools in the UK is coming under intense scrutiny as a scandal over the discovery of illicit horsemeat in beef products shows no sign of abating.

Giant catering companies have been thrust into the public eye after Sodexo - a major supplier of school meals - withdrew frozen beef products on Friday when a sample tested positive for horse DNA.

The political ramifications of the scandal are growing amid reports that ministers were warned of a potential horsemeat crisis back in 2011, and fears are raised that poor households are more likely to have been exposed to the illicit meat.

Horsemeat is widely consumed in some European countries but many Britons have a cultural aversion to eating it, and mislabelling it is illegal.

Sodexo - whose clients also include the racecourse that hosts Royal Ascot - withdrew frozen beef products late last week after what the Department for Education called "a serious and unacceptable breach of trust". The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) said products that had been affected included burgers, minced beef and halal mince.

Sodexo is the latest food group to be caught up in a scandal that erupted in January, which has thrown a spotlight on how large supermarket chains in Britain and Europe source meat.

Blame in the scandal was initially directed at supermarket groups, with critics of the British food industry arguing that it reflects a deeper malaise affecting mass food retailing in the country.

But in recent days attention has shifted to caterers and wholesalers who supply local councils as reports that horsemeat has been found in some schools fuel the anxieties of parents.

Thousands of schools and nurseries contract catering companies to supply cooked meals, which are often made off-site then transported to canteens for reheating. The Sodexo case and similar incidents have forced education authorities across the country to launch urgent reviews of what is being served.

On Saturday ministers in the devolved Scottish government announced that they would be calling local councils to a summit on the sourcing of school meals. They have ordered Scottish schools not to serve frozen beef burgers after one tested positive for horsemeat at a school in North Lanarkshire.

In Wales, meat for schools linked to a burger-making company whose products tested positive for horse DNA was withdrawn. In Lancashire, cottage pies destined for 47 schools that tested positive for horsemeat were withdrawn, and councils as far apart as Sheffield, Staffordshire and Sussex have suspended the use of processed meat or beef in schools.

Other public sector bodies are also affected. The scandal has spread to caterers supplying institutions such as hospitals and the British Army. In Northern Ireland, burgers heading for hospitals were withdrawn after officials confirmed they contained horse DNA.

Food quality debate

"I wouldn't give her school dinners because it isn't cooked in the school - and I simply do not trust the suppliers."

- Cara Richards, parent

Malcolm Walker, the chief executive of the Iceland supermarket chain, told BBC television that local councils were to blame for driving down food quality by insisting on cheap food contracts for schools and hospitals.

The quality of food in schools is a hotly debated topic in the UK, with celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver leading high-profile campaigns to improve menus in order to help bring down high levels of childhood obesity.

According to the European Health Interview Survey, a third of British children are already overweight by the time they leave primary school.

Many parents have concerns about what is served by the large catering companies contracted by their local education authorities to serve school meals.

Cara Richards, a parent in Lewisham, London, who provides her daughter with a daily packed lunch that she makes at home, explained, "I wouldn't give her school dinners because it isn't cooked in the school - and I simply do not trust the suppliers."

The discovery of horsemeat in catering supplies has increased pressure on the minister at the centre of the scandal, environment secretary Owen Paterson, who is already on the defensive over claims that the government was warned in 2011 that potentially harmful meat could enter the food chain.

The opposition Labour party's environment spokeswoman, Mary Creagh, said: "The government must ensure that catering firms speed up their tests and tell the public what they are testing, so that we know just how far this horsemeat scandal has spread through our communities."

The discovery of horsemeat in schools has also underlined the uneven social impact of the scandal, as access to free school meals is seen as an important way of tackling child poverty.

According to the Children's Food Trust 3.3 million children in the UK eat cooked school meals. Although families pay on average £1.98 per day for these meals, more than one million children whose parents are on benefits receive them free - a figure seen as a key measure of poverty.

Free school lunches

The provision of free school meals has become central to the work of child-poverty campaigners such as the Children's Society, which argues that every day more than half of the 2.2 million school children living in poverty in England miss out on a free school meal.

Its research indicates that nearly three-quarters of teachers have experienced pupils coming to school with no lunch and no means to pay for one.

"We became vegetarians because of unacceptable industrial farming and food production methods. This scandal has absolutely vindicated our decision."

- Felicity Goodall, vegetarian

Margaret Broderick, a teacher in Sutton, London, who specialises in giving individual attention to children from troubled, low-income households, said that she sees that "many of these kids are not eating properly - their diet is based on large quantities of fast food and cheap ready meals containing processed meat".

Politicians across the spectrum have warned that low-income households are those most likely to have been exposed to products containing illicit horsemeat.

Diane Abbott, Labour's spokeswoman on public health, said the mislabelling of meat disproportionately affects the poor because they are much more likely to buy cheap lasagne and so-called "value burgers".

Laura Sandys, Conservative MP for Thanet South and a prominent campaigner on food issues, commented in the Times newspaper: "The horsemeat scandal has focused on the role of supermarkets and their supply chains, but there is a whole sector of the population who can't afford to shop in supermarkets. Many of my constituents in Kent buy their food from pound shops, cornershops or takeaways, where the quality is even lower."

Moreover, large retailers such as Asda warn that the scandal is likely to push up the price of meat - at a time when plans to cap benefits that are the centrepiece of this government's economic policies are cutting the spending power of many low-income families.

Alongside concerns about the impact on the poor, the horsemeat scandal is also giving advocates of vegetarianism in the UK a new platform. They point to a report published last week for the UN Environment Programme arguing that people in the developed world should slash their consumption of meat by half to ease pressure on the global environment.

Felicity Goodall from Devon - an agricultural county in south-west England dominated by livestock farming - has been a vegetarian for 25 years and raised her sons to never eat meat.

Goodall said that the scandal highlights the fact that people have no idea what they are really eating.

"We became vegetarians because of unacceptable industrial farming and food production methods. This scandal has absolutely vindicated our decision."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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