The "horse-meat" scandal: illegal activity in the food supply chain

Robert Smith, Gerard McElwee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: Food supply chain theory and practice generally assumes that the business practices and processes involved are ethical, legal and value-adding when this is not always so, as demonstrated by the ongoing 2013 horse-meat scandal. Although it is ostensibly a UK-based affair, it encompasses the meat processing industry across Europe. This study, thus, aims to examine supply chain criminality and to highlight “scandal scripts” which amplify underlying issues. Design/methodology/approach: A systematic review of extant literature on the scandal adds to that body of work, updating the existing narrative to include a detailed analysis of convicted “industry insiders”, highlighting supply chain issues involved in the frauds. Micro-stories of businessmen involved are presented to enable an empirical exploration of their illegal involvement in the meat trade. Using storied data from accounts of the scandal as contemporary examples, emerging themes and issues are outlined through a mixed methods qualitative approach consisting of ethical covert research, using documentary research strategy underpinned by narrative inquiry. Findings: Media coverage perpetuated various myths notably that the fraud was carried out by “shadowy”, Eastern European “mafia figures” exploiting the extended food supply chains. The analysis is aided by the use of media hypothesis. Far from being a mafia-inspired fraud, the criminal activity was organised in nature and committed by insider businessmen. The findings demonstrate that supply chains are complex and require an understanding of storied business practices, including the ethical and illegal. Research limitations/implications: From an academic perspective, there are implications such as the dearth of academic research and policy-related studies into food fraud possibly because of the difficulty in obtaining data because of access to such enterprises and entrepreneurs necessitating reliance upon documentary sources and investigative journalism. Practical implications: There are distinct policy implications, particularly the need to legislate against international criminal conspiracies and everyday ordinary organised food frauds perpetuated. Lax penalties do little to prevent such crimes which need to be taken more seriously by the authorities, and treated as major crime. In formulating food laws, rules and regulations, greater cognisance should be taken to consider how supply chains in the food industry could be better protected from predatory criminal actions. Originality/value: This novel qualitative study will enable academics and practitioners to better understand illegal enterprise, food fraud and risk management from both operational and supply chain perspectives and will be useful to investigators by furthering our understanding of entrepreneurial practice and morality in the food industry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)565-578
Number of pages14
JournalSupply Chain Management
Issue number5
Early online date28 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jul 2021


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