Should horses be slaughtered for human consumption? This topic is often the subject of debate. But when consumers believe they’re eating beef lasagna and find out later that what they actually purchased was horse meat, the problem goes beyond whether or not horses should be slaughtered for food. This issue was jarringly brought to the world’s attention over the past few weeks when DNA testing in Europe uncovered horse meat in several different products, including pre-packed burgers and lasagna, labeled as beef.
Horse meat is consumed in some European and Asian countries, but not in Ireland or the UK, where horses are considered companions, not food animals. While the FSAI assured consumers that the burgers did not pose a food safety risk, questions about the reliability of the food supply chain came to the forefront.
The burgers were removed from stores, but the story didn’t end there.
In late January, Burger King restaurants in Ireland admitted that they may have sold burgers contaminated with horse meat. In February, Findus brand frozen beef lasagna was found to be contaminated as well, with some meals tested showing 100% horse meat. The Aldi supermarket chain, which used the same supplier as Findus, later confirmed that some of its frozen meals contained 30-100% horse meat.
While authorities still insist that horse meat poses no health risks to consumers, without knowing the source of the horse meat it’s impossible to know if the horses were given drugs like phenylbutazone (bute), which can be hazardous if consumed by humans.
The source of the contamination is still unclear, although it appears that it is not a single source, but a widespread problem across Europe. Contaminated meat was traced to processing plants in Ireland, France and Great Britain, but those plants bought some of their meat from Poland and Romania. Because horse meat is cheaper than beef, the contamination appears to be an intentional attempt by suppliers to cut costs rather than an accidental occurrence. In fact, The Guardian newspaper reported that there is evidence suggesting links to Russian, Polish and Italian mafia gangs intimidating officials into signing off cheap horse meat as 100% beef.
The EU Health Commission called an emergency meeting in Belgium this week to discuss security in the food supply chain.
Timeline of Horse Slaughter Legislation in the U.S.