The horse-meat contamination scandal rocking Europe shows that every ounce of the EU’s legendary regulation and bureaucracy is no match for a few unscrupulous suppliers out to make a quick buck.
Authorities in Britain say there is mounting evidence that the finding of significant amounts of horse meat in processed beef products is an act of criminal substitution. The only other option, they say, is gross negligence.
In short, it seems that some firms or individuals buried well back in the supply chain may well have figured they could make a few extra dollars by substituting cheaper horse meat for beef.
In doing so, they have placed consumers at the bottom of the food chain and damaged the reputation of several well-known food manufacturers who relied on EU-accredited suppliers to meet required standards.
For example, Burger King in Britain has expressed its understandable disappointment that beef patties, which were supposed to be made only from British and Irish beef, had, on evidence to date, been contaminated by a raw ingredient sourced from Poland. Fortunately, those patties never reached its restaurants.
It may surprise the hapless consumer in Britain and Ireland to learn that any of its local manufacturers would consider beef trimmings from Poland to be a suitable ingredient in any locally made beef burger.
One of the most egregious cases has involved Findus frozen beef lasagnes, found to contain between 60 per cent and 100 per cent horse meet.
These were made for Findus by another French firm, Comigel, at its Luxemburg plant.
According to French consumer affairs minister Benoit Hamon, inquiries had found that the horse meat had originated from Romania. Hamon reported that the Luxemburg factory had been supplied by another French firm, which had bought the meat from a Cypriot trader, who in turn sub-contracted the order to a Dutcher trader supplied by a Romanian abattoir.
The whole process hardly smacks of “quality all the way”.
Authorities have stressed throughout that there is no food safety issue in the growing scandal, but consumers may rightly take a different view.
The entire situation demonstrates a scant regard for standards where it actually counts, and that is in the supply of top-quality raw ingredients to produce top-quality products.
Had any of the firms or suppliers implicated in the cases to date carried out regular testing of their products? At a weekend meeting, British retailers and food producers agreed to three-monthly testing, the results of which would be published.
It is well known by horse advocates that the horse slaughter industry, in general, is a pretty low-rent business.
The head of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, has described it as predatory in North America.
In Europe, horses are routinely trucked huge distances to slaughter plants, a practice that the international charity, World Horse Welfare, is determined to stamp out.
The European Union has a passport system for horses to ensure those entering the human food chain have not had any banned drugs, in particular, phenylbutazone, a common anti-inflammatory drugs used in equines.
Phenylbutazone is known to cause rare but serious adverse effects in humans such as blood discrasia, a serious, life-threatening, condition.
Views on the risks of the drug, more commonly known as bute, can be found here.
In short, a zero limit for bute has been set for horse meat entering the human food chain because scientists do not know the precise mechanism by which bute can trigger these problems in humans.
If they do no know that mechanism, scientists cannot be sure whether the tiniest exposure through eating tainted meat can trigger disease, or whether longer or more significant exposure is required. That said, most seem to agree that the risk of such serious disease is very low.
The contamination scandal has thrown a spotlight on Britain’s horse slaughter trade, even though there is no suggestion that the contaminated meat was from a British source.
The numbers on bute contamination are not encouraging.
About 10,000 horses went to slaughter in Britain last year for human consumption, all bound for overseas markets.
Britain’s Food Standards Agency routinely tests less than 1 per cent of slaughtered horses for the drug.
It found four positives in a sample of 82 carcasses in 2012, according to the The Guardian newspaper.
It carried out a special additional survey on a further 63 horses last year and found 5 per cent of those contained residues, bringing the total positives to nine.
Those percentages are hardly encouraging – especially so in a country which has had a regulatory passport regime since 2005, designed to keep horses that have received bute out of the human food chain.
A position paper on phenylbutazone produced last July by the independent Veterinary Residues Committee, and published by Britain’s agriculture agency, Defra, said it had repeatedly expressed concern over residues of phenylbutazone entering the food chain.
The committee noted that the number of horse samples which have tested positive for residues of phenylbutazone
had varied between 2 per cent to 5 per cent over the last five years.
The committee noted that Defra had found in recent years that some vets were still prescribing phenylbutazone without checking the passport or ensuring that the horse was subsequently signed out of the food chain.
“The committee understands that phenylbutazone is an important medicine to maintain the welfare of older horses and is widely used to treat horses that are kept as companion animals.
“However, keepers of horses and veterinary surgeons must comply with their obligations under the legislation in relation to administering medicines to horses that may be destined for the food chain, to avoid consumers being exposed to potentially harmful residues.”
Two to 5 per cent of horses returning positive tests should be a worrying number to authorities.
One can only wonder what the true picture is in North America, where more than 100,000 horses are sent annually from the United States to slaughter plants in Mexico and Canada to service the meat trade in Europe and Japan.
Given that horses are not raised in the US as food animals, the traceability standards are far less stringent than in Europe.
Consumers, whether they eat beef or horse meat, should rightfully be concerned on so many levels.
FOOTNOTE: On February 12 (NZ time), Britain’s Food Standards Agency announced a new regime that requires the testing of all horse carcases bound for the human food chain to be tested for phenylbutazone before their release. The news report can be read here.