No one has died, or been harmed, and the risks of harm are very low. So why freak out about horsemeat?

The ‘scandal’ of beef products from across Europe being adulterated with a very similar and almost certainly harmless alternative meat - one regarded in some quarters as a delicacy - continues unabated. If that sounds odd, that’s because this is a very odd scandal indeed.

The whole affair started after DNA testing was carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on burgers and other beef products from plants in the Irish Republic. And as more and more firms have actually checked the contents of their products, so more cases of horsemeat contamination have come to light. In particular, products sold under the labels of Findus and Tesco, but made by French firm Comigel, have attracted particular negative publicity.

Yet no one has raised serious health concerns. As far as anyone can tell, no one has died or even been made ill by a beef product that contained horsemeat. There has been a half-hearted attempt to suggest that a painkiller - phenylbutazone or ‘bute’ - which is used in some horses but banned in humans and in meat for human consumption, might have contaminated some of those burgers and lasagnes. In rare cases, ‘bute’ can trigger serious side effects in susceptible people, which is why it was banned for human use. But none has been found in the dodgy horsemeat products and the risks seem low.

In short, there has been - at the very least - some clumsy handling of foods that have allowed cross-contamination of meats. In the worst examples, there has clearly been some blatant fraud.

Interestingly, the other element to the scandal - the discovery of pork in beef products, even some that were labelled ‘halal’ and therefore presented as suitable for Muslims - has attracted far less attention. But the implication that someone’s deeply held religious beliefs have been trampled upon by contaminating their food with pork seems a more significant issue than the negligible risks to health from horsemeat. It seems the ‘yuk’ factor counts for more than religious customs these days.

To the extent that there is a real problem, it is that retailers and big brands have been selling products that include ingredients that are not supposed to be there. This suggests that, for some companies, supply chains have become too complicated to monitor properly. Indeed, what has been revealed in the past few weeks is the high level of specialisation of food production, so that the same ingredients may have criss-crossed Europe at various stages in the transition from slaughtered animal to oven-ready meal. The whole selling point of a ‘brand’ is that we can expect a product of predictable quality and can then choose what we want to eat based on the quality of the brand and the amount we are willing to pay. This affair has rather tarnished that trust.

The answer being touted by politicians, who must be seen to be ‘doing something’, is ever-greater testing and regulation. So UK prime minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that ‘we have also asked for meaningful tests from retailers and producers, and they will be published in full’. Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Mary Creagh, has pointed the finger at cuts in the Food Standards Agency (FSA) budget and a dislike of regulation in Whitehall: ‘Why was no national system put in place to regularly audit labelling and composition to protect consumers? Defra’s silence on the lack of a national system or process to check what exactly is in our food has been deafening.’

The fact is, however, that no system of government-backed testing and regulation could ever be an absolute protection against this sort of problem. In this instance, the possibility that horsemeat would be substituted for beef probably never occurred to producers and retailers. No doubt they will, embarrassed by the affair, tighten up their quality control. But ultimately we do have to place our faith in the people we buy from, whether they are farmers selling at market or multinational corporations selling in superstores. Our best defence is reputation and, for the most part, it works. We have safe, reliable supplies of food. The horsemeat affair is newsworthy because it is unusual. We also need to take some responsibility for making a judgement about what goes into our mouths, not simply rely on government inspectors.

Indeed, as we have seen in many other areas of life, from social work to nursing, the ‘tickbox culture’ must share a considerable share of the blame. In the case of meat, rather than actually have some ongoing relationship with suppliers and a sense of taking responsibility for what goes into the packet, it seems many firms have become entirely reliant on a backside-covering paper trail. As long as you can show the inspector that your paperwork is in order, all is well.

‘More regulation, more testing’ seems like an obvious solution, but there are negative, often unintended consequences to regulation. One was raised by Dr Mark Woolfe, former head of food authenticity at the FSA. Woolfe pointed out this week that an EU regulation, brought in with just two days’ notice in April 2012, stopped food producers from describing desinewed meat as beef. (Desinewed meat is a fine mincemeat produced by stripping the carcass bones.) This perfectly edible product, previously used widely in economy products, had to be replaced in a hurry. ‘Manufacturers who were using that for value products had to leave the UK food chain and look at overseas suppliers at a price similar to desinewed meat. This is why this has started to go wrong: the longer the food chain the more difficult it is to control.’

Another negative consequence is that additional regulations weigh disproportionately on small producers. The very shops and suppliers that foodies love to celebrate are already being hit by tomes of rules on the production, display, packaging and labelling of foods. Even small risks are enough to trigger bans on good food, especially in the red-tape-happy EU. Big producers, on the other hand, have whole departments dedicated to compliance with these rules. The result is higher prices for consumers and less choice.

But such practicalities aside, what is striking about the horsemeat affair is how it is a panic almost entirely created and sustained in the triangle between Westminster, the media and big business. Outside this cosy little world, nobody seems to have cared very much. The only epidemic has been of horse jokes: the horsemeat affair is more punic than panic. In fact, the modern tendency for panics exists largely at the level of a disconnected elite, talking to itself and the fearful chattering classes in the media. From chucking away tonnes of perfectly edible food and raising prices to creating ever-greater layers of bureaucracy, the result is pointless, wasteful overreaction.

Horsemeat scandal: where's the beef?, spiked