What We Can Learn from the European Horse Meat Scandal

On January 16th, the Food Standards Agency of Ireland released damning results of tests it had conducted on different brands of burgers – and much to the shock of consumers who believed the meat was from cattle, some of the “beef” burgers actually contained substantial percentages of horse meat. The distributors initially connected to the mislabeled meat, including global food retailer Tesco (responsible for a burger that was 30 percent horse meat), quickly responded by pulling all their burgers from shelves in Ireland and Great Britain. It’s not that unusual that some pig might end up in a burger, because beef and pork are often processed in the same facilities, but horse? Something fishy, and most likely illegal, was definitely going on.

As the weeks rolled on, the world found out that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Over just a few weeks, DNA tests proved horse meat “beef” was all over Europe – from Burger King franchises in Ireland to packaged lasagna in UK grocery stores – and it was being traced back to more than just a few distributors. And alarmingly, the percentage amount of horse meat in products labeled as beef began to grow much larger – some “beef” products were actually 100 percent horse.

In late February the scandal continued to escalate. One of the world’s best-known food companies, Nestle, pulled pasta meals from store shelves in France, Spain and Italy after DNA testing showed two products contained horse meat. On February 26th, Ikea pulled its famous Swedish meatballs from its markets and cafeterias across most of Europe after one batch was found to contain traces of horse meat. Then on March 1st DNA testing revealed there was horse meat in the ground beef used at Taco Bell locations in the UK (although this is not the first time Taco Bell has been called out for hocking beef that is less beefy than one would expect). To date, mislabeled products have been discovered in the UK, Ireland, France, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany. Some products in the Netherlands have been recalled as tests are carried out.

European consumers are rightfully shocked. Although consumption of horse meat is actually quite common in some European countries, it is not common throughout Europe, and even in places where it is, outrage persists because they were misled by false labels. And because of the nature of the scandal, there was concern about the quality of the meat. Some meat tested positive for the equine painkiller phenylbutazone, which could potentially be harmful to humans. There is also a chance that horse meat from Romania could be contaminated with equine infectious anemia (EIA), which does not pose a risk to humans but could be an indicator of additional health problems in horses that may come from poor living conditions. A media frenzy ensued as European nations scrambled to figure out who was to blame, and authorities came to the following confusing conclusion, explained in a Guardian article entitled “Horsemeat scandal blamed on international fraud by mafia gangs”:

It came from abattoirs in Romania through a dealer in Cyprus working through another dealer in Holland to a meat plant in the south of France which sold it to a French-owned factory in Luxembourg which made it into frozen meals sold in supermarkets in 16 countries.

So let’s spell this out: the meat originated in Romania (other reports indicated that dealers from Poland supplied some of the horse meat), and its journey into the European market is a story of organized crime and a failure of regulatory systems and bodies. Romanian and French authorities assert that horse meat from Romania left the country correctly labeled as horse. When it reached France, the main processing company involved in the scandal, Spanghero, slapped on “beef” labels and sold it to suppliers throughout Europe – including Comigo, another processor believed to have been involved. They did it with the help of officials working within abattoirs and food production plants who may have been intimidated into cooperating. Head still spinning? This fantastic infographic provided by the Australian Food Safety Institute illustrates how the scandal unfolded.

In Britain, the scandal has led to a discussion about flaws in the meat industry, which is largely self-regulated. Workforces and budgets have been cut which means there are now fewer employees and less funding for enforcing existing regulations, and therefore fewer government inspections. As a result, European Union officials, European ministers and the European Commissioner for Health and Consumers Directorate, Tonio Borg, set up a meeting in Brussels on February 13th to discuss the flaws in European food safety controls exposed by the scandal, as well as how to fix the system. The meeting resulted in a three-month program of DNA testing of processed meat across the European Union. As for the culprits, The Hague-based Europol will be coordinating investigation among national authorities. Anyone involved in the scandal, and anyone caught on raids on premises, will be arrested "on suspicion" of criminal conspiracy to defraud.

Although none of the mislabeled horse meat will reach our shores, Americans’ trust in labeling – such as it is – has been shaken by the scandal. Just like our counterparts across the pond, we’re being forced to examine not only our labeling practices, but the ridiculously complex and decidedly un-transparent system by which industrial meat is produced and distributed.

As the EU moves forward to instate stricter labeling and inspection regulations, we should pay attention to the legislative battles that determine labeling for our food, such as bills to label GMOs and debates over meat inspection regulations. At the moment, we’re facing a regulatory crisis of our own. The sequester passed Friday includes cuts to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which means potentially 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products as well as a leave of absence for all FSIS employees for approximately two weeks. This could have some serious food safety implications. Stay tuned and stay informed – because regulatory agencies all over the world have been shown to fall short in matters like these. We recommend, whenever possible, buying meat products directly from farmers, and from restaurants and processors you trust.