A few weeks ago the "great meal scandal," as it has come to be known in Australia, attracted little concern and a great deal of humorous comment. The discovery by United States authorities that some frozen beef sent by Australian exporters to the American market in fact contained some horsemeat seemed unlikely to have very great consequences.
However, more recent revelations have produced criticism of Australia's federal police, senior government administrators, and the federal minister for primary industry. Substitution on kangaroo and donkey meat for prime beef has been acknowledged as well.
The scandal has affected the nation's exports of meat to the Middle East and to Singapore, and resulted in stringent new inspection conditions on the continuing (but temporarily reduced) Australian meat trade to the US. The Australian government announced this week it will appoint royal commission to investigate the meat substitutions.
Government sources confirm that rackets involving meat substitution have been operating for about five years and largely have been ignored by federal authorities.
The government suspended the export license of one Melbourne meat packer and is investigating several others. Police expect to launch prosecutions soon for the false labeling.
Federal Police Commissioner Sir Colin Woods this week criticized previous investigations of the meat industry, saying that if they had been pursued with more vigor they might have produced different results. He notes there has been only one conviction for such an offense since 1975.
"The police life is all about knowing who did it and never being able to prove it," he said. "Maybe if more resources had been applied, different results would have followed."
Allegations of a meat-substitution racket have been made over the past three or four years in both the Victoria and federal parliaments. One senator alleged that a meat inspector who had tried to interfere in the racket had been transferred from his job.
The current meat substitution racket so far has been shown to involve only one small plant in a Melbourne suburb, although hundreds of samples have been taken around Australia and in the US of other shipments.
Only 10 containers of meat are known to be affected so far -- worth some 300, 000 dollars (Australian) -- a minute proportion of Australia's 700 million-dollar beef trade with the US. However, the government wants to be viewed as acting to prevent future abuses.
Soon the Cabinet is expected to consider proposals for higher penalties for meat violations and a more intensive inspection process, including placement of official seals on export cartons.
In Victoria, where most of the allegations of meat-substitution have occurred , the state government has announced tighter regulations dealing with horse and kangaroo meat killed for the pet-food market. These laws will require pet food to be stained with an edible dye.
Primary Industry Minister Peter Mixon this week said that small traces of dye indicating the presence of horsemeat had been found in export meat cartons in Victoria.
Delays in shipping beef have resulted in the closing of meatworks 2,000 miles from Melbourne.