The curious tale of the horse that became a cow

March 2013

As the horse-meat-sold-as-beef scandal runs and runs, one thing is clear. The gap between what we understand as 'food' and what we're actually being sold is uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

The tale started as a mad maze of international intermediaries shuffling papers to which a lump of meat was loosely attached. ...


Romanian farmer with horse. By Adam Jones Adam63 (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time... 

there was a horse which didn't live happily ever after, for it was turned into a parcel of meat and then into a cow.

The horse was probably Romanian, but may have been from any European country (except Poland) or even from South America.

It may or may not have been fit for human consumption and may or may not have been slaughtered in an approved abattoir. It may also have been suffering from equine infectious anaemia (like a lot of other Romanian horses) and may have been chock-full of horse drugs. However, it was certainly a normal sort of horse with normal horse DNA.

The probably Romanian horse was bought by a Dutchman who ran a meat company in Cyprus and who was just out of jail for selling South American horse meat as 'halal beef'.

After that, the probably Romanian horse was sold on to a French Company under contract from another French Company under contract from a Swedish Company, and sent to a plant in Luxembourg for processing into an Italian dish, called 'beef'-lasagne, to be eaten in Britain.

The presence of the Romanian-French-Swedish-Luxembourg-Italian-British horse-beef came to light after the Irish Food Standards Agency found the horse in beefburgers (a German invention?) also destined for Britain but produced by an Irish Company which said its source was Poland.

So, the Polish meat supplier looked and looked, but no matter how hard it tried, it couldn't find any horses in places they shouldn't have been.

Now, count how many world-opportunities there were for that probably Romanian horse to become a cow?

Within a few weeks, the mess that is our food supply system was becoming only too obvious.

The probably Romanian horse wasn't a lone, accidental, infiltrator into the non-equine human food-chain. Rather, it was one tiny part of a huge herd of dead horses rounded up by criminals and trotted into meat-processing facilities across Europe. With horse-meat selling for £700 per tonne compared with £3,000 for beef we don't need to look far to see why.

One industry insider is quoted as saying the practice of using horse-meat for beef may be widespread:
“Everyone in the industry knows that when they are buying unusually cheap beef they are, in fact, dealing with horse-meat, but they choose to turn a blind eye because it's good for business and the meat is actually not inferior in quality.”
Regulation of our food supply is now centralised in Brussels, and the latest fad (apparently adopted from the US model) is the 'light-touch' approach. The result has been a shift away from routine testing for compliance with the law and enforcement: it is now the responsibility of the food businesses, themselves, to demonstrate effective food safety management.

Making sure that all those bits of paper and the meat they're supposed to represent actually match up takes highly trained professionals.

Cash-strapped local authorities in Britain have cut back their inspection services by a third (and by more than a half in Scotland); plans are to our reduce Trading Standards services by one third over the next year; the number of public analyst laboratories has been halved over the last decade. The Food Standards Agency is the UK competent authority for the implementation and monitoring of feed and food law, but has no direct control over local authority budgets for sampling and testing, and it's meat hygiene service has been cut by £12 million over the last four years As our food and food chain become ever more complex and distant from the end-consumer, the means to test for fraud have been steadily eroded. Rules without enforcement provide an open-door for criminal opportunists.

When the scale of the problem finally dawned, the rush to test everything beef-like in the system soon exceeded our capacity to perform the tests.

Just about anything with 'beef' has been found to be horse in part or in whole. From Tesco's cheapest-of-the-cheap 'value' beef-burgers to big-brand names like Nestlé and fast-food chain Burger King, from Swedish furniture giant IKEA's iconic meat-balls to caterers supplying schools and the House of Commons, no supply-stream seems to have escaped adulteration.

The end of the story is that we don't know what we're eating, where it came from, how many countries it's been in, who has handled it, whether it's ever been fit for human consumption. Nor do we have the infrastructure to find out.

Put succinctly, the common market ideal has created “a system so ill-conceived that for years it has been a disaster waiting to happen” (Booker).

 And, guess what we're relying on to keep unapproved, untested or unwanted GM materials, novel GM pathogens, and GM-linked accumulative toxins out of our food chain?

Yes, the self-same common market ideal, that light-touch US-style, industry-friendly regulatory approach, those reams of meaningless paper shuffling over national boundaries, the labels which can say (or not say) anything, and very little capacity for checking that all’s well.

On the bright side, now you have every reason to demand full disclosure labelling on everything sold as 'food'. You want to know exactly what it is, where it came from, what artificial materials are included, and what artificial input has been used in its production, no matter how small scale the part involved.

If the label needed to tell you all that looks like the Encyclopedia Britannica, then you don't want to buy it or eat it.

  • Felicity Lawrence and James Meikle, Health risks from eating horsemeat 'may be downplayed', Guardian, 19.01.13
  • Matthew Taylor and James Meikle, Cuts and deregulation fostered meat scandal, says Labour, Guardian, 19.01.13
  • Tanya Gold, Horse burgers should have us all weeping in the aisles, Guardian, 19.01.13
  • Anus Howarth, Call for more food testing after horse meat scandal, Scotsman, 19.01.13
  • Fred Attewill, Now horse meat feared to contain cancer drug, Metro, 25.01.13
  • Fred Attewill, Has someone been telling Whoppers? Metro, 1.02.13
  • James Meikle and Henry McDonald, Tainted meat in store not our product says Newry firm, Guardian, 6.02.13
  • Stephen Deal, 100% horse meat in Findus lasagne, Metro 8.02.13
  • Tom Peterkin, Watchdog orders checks on all beef products, Scotsman, 9.02.13
  • James Meikle, Felicity Lawrence and Peter Wintour, Police called in to investigate 'criminal' horsemeat scandal, Guardian, 9.02.13
  • Rob Edwards, Food protection tests slashed by a third in Scotland, Sunday Herald, 17.02.13
  • Jon Ungoed-Thomas and John Mooney, The slaughter of Gwen and Lady: a warning ignored, Sunday Times, 17.02.13
  • A contamination that covers the world, Sunday Telegraph, 17.02.13
  • Christopher Booker, What's in your meat? All the answers lie in Europe, Sunday Telegraph, 17.02.13
  • James Hall, Wake-up call for food retailers, Sunday Telegraph, 17.02.13
  • Charles Clover, Brussels makes a hash of the meat paper trail, Sunday Times, 17.02.13
  • Aidan Radnedge, 500 meat products will now be tested for horse, Metro, 20.02.13
  • Stephen Deal, Firm: There is no horsemeat in meals we sent to schools, Metro, 22.02.13
  • James Meikle, Scotland bans frozen burgers in schools as horse DNA found, Guardian, 23.02.13
  • Hayden Smith, Ikea withdraws meatballs over horse DNA find, Metro, 26.02.13
  • Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland certification schemes

No comments:

Post a comment

Thanks for your comment. All comments are moderated before they are published.