The Blame Game: Europe’s Horse Crisis Is Giving a Viable Food Source a Bad Name

By
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Who knew something as innocuous as frozen lasagna would ever set off a huge international food scandal? After European officials discovered that lots of meat labeled as "beef" was actually "horse" (or possibly donkey), people are, you know, pissed off. Rightfully so, but the problem here is that horsemeat is getting an even worse reputation than it already had, when it's the world's broken food maufacturing systems that are the real problem.

Obviously it's vile to think that the food chain is so thoroughly compromised that horsemeat could more or less sneak in and go undetected for so long. But the same uproar probably wouldn't be quite so bad if the mislabled "beef" had turned out to be something more palatable like ground turkey or pork.

Horsemeat itself is fine it's lean and mild, like subtle venison. But while Americans and Brits stigmatize eating it because horses are companion animals, the real problem with horses as food is that the supply is underegulated. Even traditional horse-loving countries try to avoid old racehorses coming from America because of fears that they're too drugged up to be edible. In other words, Americans don't eat horses because they're our friends; France avoids American horses because they probably taste like Lance Armstrong.

In either case, the issue is that horses aren't really raised to be food. The horses that are eaten are, often, leftover animals that were primarly raised for another purpose see the racehorses, above. Even the meat that got into the European lasagna came from Romania, where, according to the Independent, "a law banning horses from Romanian roads may be responsible for the surge in the fraudulent sale of horsemeat on the European beef market." Also, some people say there might have been some donkey meat mixed in there, too. (Romanian officials maintain that the meat was slaughtered and labeled properly before it left their country.)

Horsemeat already had a bad enough reputation remember the uproar at M. Wells Dinette when the restaurant hinted it was going to serve horse tartare? and nobody new is going to be persuaded to try it after reading repeatedly how tainted the meat supply could be. But the reality is that there are only so many chicken breasts and pork bellies to go around.

Like lots of other foods, when horse is raised and sourced responsibly, the results are good. France is the most common example cited when talking about countries where horse-eating is acceptable. In fact, today Reuters finds "a loyal minority in France laments a dwindling appetite for a meat they say is a tastier and healthier alternative to beef," citing tons of horse dishes tartare with strawberries and tarragon cream, broiled cheek served around Paris. Cured horse sausages, big in Italy, are another option.

Whether or not people decide to start really raising horses for the sole purpose of eventually eating them (it seems unlikely), the real issue here is that the whole debacle yet again highlights how far away consumers in industrial nations are from their food sources. Here, according to Bloomberg, is the path the tainted meat took:

The prepared meals sold by Findus were manufactured at a Luxembourg factory owned by French company Comigel, Frances consumer and anti-fraud office said Feb. 9. Comigels supplier was Poujol, owned by Arcadie Sud-Ouest. Poujol bought the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader that sub-contracted a Dutch trader who sourced the meat from a slaughterhouse and a meat packer in Romania, according to the regulator.

Add to that tangle of businesses the supermarkets that sold the products. With that many people and companies involved, it's no wonder people are having a hard time pinpointing where the problem started. As the Times reports, "identifying exactly who was to blame for its getting into food products has proved elusive" since there are so many places where mistakes can happen, or, more sinister, plenty of opportunities where someone looking to defraud customers could do so.

Speaking of criminal intent, British officials are now blaming an "international criminal conspiracy" for the mix-up. The system is so convoluted that the chair of Britian's parliamentary food and environment committee wondered whether the tainted beef was even intended for people: "We seem to be no clearer as to what the source of this contamination is, or whether the supply was ever destined for human consumption. Is this a fraud of such a massive scale that it should never have entered the human food chains?"

If there were ever a time for locavores to set down their grass-fed steaks and shout, "We told you so," this is it.

Of course reducing the number of steps that it takes to get meat to consumers always means raising the price of the actual meat. But any customers that might have mistakenly eaten doped-up horsemeat instead of beef probably wouldn't mind paying a little more for peace of mind.

Horse Meat Probe Spurs Regulation Blizzard as Grocers Test Beef [Bloomberg]
We've done nothing wrong, say Romanian horse abattoirs [Telegraph UK]
Anger Flares in Europe as Scandal Over Meat Widens [NYT]
'Criminal conspiracy' blamed for European horse-in-burger scandal [NBC]