British agriculture seems constantly trammelled by bad news. If it isn’t serious outbreaks of uninvited disease, it’s about the human capability to do bad and stupid things with food. From the land where mad cow disease was allowed to smoulder for two decades comes the recent scandal of horsemeat in beef products.
For some, the mixing of edible proteins into a product may not seem too outrageous; consumer revulsion when done illegally is quite another matter. The Brits, particularly touchy about eating horsemeat for any reason, are getting even feistier with the spectre of potential residues and microbial contamination. The scandal has reached mammoth proportions in the U.K. and Europe, prompting regulatory changes, abattoir closures and new drug-testing requirements.
How did the scandal become so involved, so quickly? How did it evolve into something so intrusive under a meat inspection system that was forced to change by BSE into one of the most sophisticated in the world? It’s very clear that regardless of technology and regulatory oversight, evil and dishonest forces can quickly reduce any system to Third World status. Sixteen EU member countries have been affected. Testing of so-called “beef” products by DNA analysis has shown horsemeat in up to 60 per cent of the products tested. Politicians are scurrying to find someone to blame and point fingers. The cracks in a system apparently polished during the BSE fiasco are starting to reappear. Twice snubbed, the push-back from fidgety U.K. beef eaters is expected to be substantial. Its effect on the international red meat trade is a question mark.
Beef is Ireland’s top agriculture product. The horsemeat scandal threatens to erode international confidence in a business worth US$2.5 billion a year and the integrity of processed beef products across Europe. Some politicians claim the problem is linked to imported offcuts of Polish meat. While most agree it is not a food safety issue, few deny claims of fraud somewhere along the seven-nation journey by truck from Poland to Ireland. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported that horsemeat accounted for 29 per cent of the meat content found in one sample collected from major retail chain Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in Britain and Ireland. In another case, the meat in a “beef” product was 100 per cent horsemeat. As well, other products such as beef curry pie, lasagna and cottage pie tested positive for pig DNA. Traders and abattoirs from Cyprus to Romania have been implicated. Forensic investigations in France found one firm, Spanghero, had generated a profit of nearly $1 million (€550,000) over six months by selling cheap horsemeat as beef in a supply chain that reached through 28 companies in 13 countries. Asda, one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets and an arm of U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart Stores, recalled its beef bolognese sauce because horse DNA was present.
Following the closure of U.S. slaughter plants, the price of horses bound for slaughter in Canada has fallen to 25 to 35 cents per pound ($0.77 per kg). By comparison, finished steers were selling for $1.23 per pound or $2.70 per kg.
Disgust with things like the horsemeat scandal turns a wide swath of consumers toward natural production methods, but only if they can afford to care. Affluent shoppers at places like Borough Market in Central London buy organic sirloin steak for £48 per kilo despite the fact it’s three times the price of Tesco’s sirloin and 15 times more than Aldi mince. The U.K. may be at a point where people are unable to pay the price for knowing where food comes from. People in queue for free food at food banks have doubled. Tins of protein — budget meatballs, hotdogs and corned beef — are prized items. Is a sideline of the horsemeat scandal vindication for not promoting producers in the food supply chain?
Despite the natural human tendency to get close to where things are produced, North America is still a cauldron of resistance to traceability. Horsemeat lasagna and the criminality associated with it hopefully will guide the thought process on this side of the ocean and the disastrous effects it could have on the tangled web of global trade.
EU legislation states that horsemeat can be sold in meat products on the condition it is declared on the label. However, the scandal over horsemeat in beef products quickly flared when it moved from a case of mislabelling to accusations of potential food safety involving drug residues and microbial contamination.
Leading the furor over residues was phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly used in horses worldwide. The EU’s paranoia over anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids in the food chain led to the ban of all imports of horsemeat from animals that could not be certified as having never received “bute.” Analytical technology is now at a point these categories of drugs can be detected for months, perhaps years after administration, necessitating veterinary certification that horses have never been treated with phenylbutazone or anabolic steroids before slaughter; a difficult if not impossible task in many cases. A significant percentage of horses as a result are left in “no man’s land” when end-of-life decisions are made.
Public health authorities have already stated that phenylbutazone residues entered the food chain in France. Questions have also surfaced about the fact that horses that adulterated beef products were never tested for Trichinella sp. The serious human disease, trichinosis, is caused by ingestion of larval stages of the parasite in improperly cooked meat from animals. Bear, pigs and horses can be carriers. Ten thousand cases of trichinosis are diagnosed every year worldwide.
The possibility that horses may have been slaughtered in uninspected facilities presents the public health conundrum of other potential meat pathogens like salmonella and listeria.
As the scandal unfolds in Europe, we are left wondering, “Could it happen here?”
— Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).