The Horsemeat Scandal – A Lesson in Food Politics

By Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH

The unfolding drama around Europe’s horsemeat scandal is a case study in food politics and the politics of cultural identity. Cultural identity? There are people who eat horsemeat. We don’t. Most Americans are appalled by the very idea and oppose raising horses for food or slaughtering horses for any reason.

Questions Remain Unanswered As the Story Unfolds

This attitude has created certain dilemmas. Since Congress effectively banned the slaughter of horses in 2006, roughly 140,000 horses a year are transported to Canada and Mexico to be killed. Whether this is better or worse from the horses’ perspective is arguable. Some, perhaps most, of that meat will be exported as food.

As Mal Nesheim and I wrote in our book about the pet food industry, “Feed Your Pet Right,” over 90 percent of domestic horsemeat ends up in pet food. The rest is eaten or shipped to Europe. In the 1920s, horse slaughterhouses started their own pet food companies as a means to dispose of the meat. Horsemeat remained a major ingredient of dog food throughout the 1940s.

Since then, pet food companies have replaced horsemeat with meats from other animals.  Although it continues to be permitted in pet food, I’m not aware of any pet food company that would dare using it because it would have to be disclosed on package labels.

That brings me to the European horsemeat crisis, one brought about by advances in DNA technology that allow officials to test for species in foods.

I’m indebted to Joe O’Toole, president of Lucullus, a French specialty foods company, for keeping me up to date on the unfolding saga of how horsemeat got into European hamburgers and many other foods. He sent me links to websites reporting on the story.

The problem first emerged in early January when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland handed over results of DNA tests it had carried out on hamburgers produced in Ireland for sale in Great Britain. Samples from 10 of 27 products, sourced from three processing plants, had tested positive for horse DNA. One sample is said to have contained 29 percent horsemeat.

As the article explained, the immediate response was “A relatively faultless exercise in damage control.”  Food processors recalled their products right away, and Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, placed an ad in the papers and followed it up with a video to apologize to its customers. It has been viewed as an example of excellent damage control. Although Tesco shares dropped by one percent for a loss of  $475 million, the fallout could have been worse.

Leaving aside the cultural prohibitions against eating horsemeat, here is what I find fascinating:

• DNA technology made this possible.

• The supply chain is so complicated that it involves many countries, including Romania, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain, Poland, France and, no doubt, many others. Where the meat comes from is impossible to trace.

• There is endless finger pointing over who is to blame.

• The number of companies involved in the scandal is enormous.

• Among other things, this is a drug issue because horses are treated with drugs.

• There is even the idea that horse transports are used as a cover for smuggling of drugs and people.

• There is also the likelihood of an involvement of organized crime (if selling horsemeat is illegal).

By far the best place to start on this story is an article by Felicity Lawrence, titled “Horsemeat Scandal: The Essential Guide”, published in The Guardian. She did this as a Q and A:

Where did the horsemeat scandal begin?

Where did the horse and pig found by the Irish in beef products come from?

Why did some products contain so much more horse than others?

How did the rest of Europe get involved?

Is the source of the Irish horsemeat the same as the French one?

Why are the supply chains so complex?

Why has it happenened?

How is the meat industry regulated?

What about industry claims that it has full traceability?

What happened to government control of food safety and standards?

Where do the horses come from?

Why are governments talking about organised crime?

Is it a health problem?

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH is the author of many influential books, among them “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics.” She teaches as professor in the Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health Department at New York University. For more information, visit her blog www.foodpolitics.com

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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