Europe sure has been horsing around with their beef lately.
Back in January, horse meat DNA was found in hamburgers sold in Ireland and Britain. The DNA was found in relatively low levels in most of the burgers, but some hamburgers sold at Tesco, a large retailer in Britain, were composed of up to 29% horse meat. The response and follow-up to these findings has been huge.
Tesco immediately pulled all of their products that came from the company that supplied the burgers, Silvercrest Foods. Burger King also dropped the supplier. Others soon followed suit and started testing their own beef, and soon Swedish companies and French authorities also found horse meat contamination. Products as diverse as frozen lasagna, spaghetti Bolognese, shepherd’s pie, and moussaka have been removed from store freezers across Europe.
Who's to blame?
Suppliers and food producers continue to point fingers from one to another, each claiming that someone else is in the wrong. Comingel, a French supplier, said in a letter that the contamination may date back to August 2012. A French consumer group suspects a ring of suppliers based in Romania, Cyprus and the Netherlands. According to CNN, Britain’s Food Safety Authority said it is still uncertain whether the situation is a matter of gross negligence or deliberate contamination.
The problem is, horse meat can sometimes contain traces of bute, a veterinary drug. Horses treated with bute are not allowed into the food chain because of the risk it poses to human health. In rare cases, it can cause aplastic anaemia, a serious blood disorder. In low levels it poses a relatively small risk to human health. But the issue of horse meat contamination isn’t really so much a health concern as it is about mislabeling.
“My guess is that the big issue in Britain and the EU right now is mislabeled food—and the danger of unsafe food getting into the food supply,” said Alvin Roth in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “That is complicated by the fact that some people wouldn’t like to eat horse, even if labeled correctly.”
Most people consider eating horse meat taboo, except in a few select countries such as France, Russia, Italy and China. Some people even prefer eating horse meat over beef.
“I understand people are upset if what they thought was beef turned out to be old Romanian ponies, but when horses are reared properly it’s a delicious meat,” Gerard Marin, a Parisian at a butcher, told Reuters.
'Bad for business'
In response to the contamination, the European Union health chief stated that the European Commission would contemplate improving rules on product labeling and testing. The Commision is also looking into introducing country-of-origin labels for processed meats. Ministers from the seriously affected countries will meet today to discuss an appropriate response to the scandal.
And on Tuesday, British Authorities raided Peter Boddy slaughterhouse and Farmbox Meats due to suspicion that they sold horse meat labeled as beef. Production was suspended at both establishments and their records were seized by Food Standards Agency officials and police. CBS News stated that the owner of the slaughterhouse said he would cooperate while a spokesman for Farmbox Meats claimed they did nothing wrong.
“A taboo on horse meat is bad for the horse meat business. A mislabeling scandal is bad for the whole food distribution business,” said Roth.