The discovery of horse DNA in beef burgers for sale in Britain and Ireland highlights widespread confusion about the origin of horse meat in the European food chain, Humane Society International says.
“We don’t yet know how horse meat came to be in these beef burgers, but consumers have rightly raised questions about how much is really known about the origin of our food,” the charity’s European Union director, Joanna Swabe, said.
“Killing horses for meat raises serious ethical questions and causes extreme disquiet,” she said.
“Horses are sensitive, sentient animals for whom the long-distance transport and slaughter process can be hugely distressing. Research commissioned by Humane Society International shows that many EU citizens would prefer to avoid eating horse meat altogether and only a very small percentage claim to eat it frequently.”
Swabe said a retail investigation recently conducted by the charity revealed that many EU consumers may be completely unaware of the origin of horse meat – or that they are buying horse meat at all – due to inadequate labelling.
Its report into the availability of horse meat in Belgium, France and the Netherlands found horse meat products to be widely available to consumers in these countries in a variety of forms including fresh chilled products and processed horse meat products, such as sliced smoked meats, salami and sausages.
Horse meat was also found as a “hidden ingredient” in cheap convenience meat snack products, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands. The study observed that was likely that consumers may be completely unaware that these products contain horse meat.
The retail investigation found that only fresh, chilled cuts of horse meat were labelled with reliable country-of-origin information.
In contrast, the study concluded that it was impossible for consumers to ascertain where the meat used in processed horse-meat products originally came from because the product markings, if present, refer to where the product has been manufactured and packaged, rather than to where the animals from which it derives had been raised and slaughtered.
The charity said the horse-meat trade in Europe resulted in around 200,000 horses being killed for their meat in the EU. Tens of thousands of horses suffered long-distance transportation to satisfy the trade.
Additional hundreds of thousands of kilograms of horse meat was imported into the EU annually from abattoirs in other countries, such as Canada and Mexico.
It raised the risk to human health posed by the imported horse meat, pointing to the fact that many American horses that ended up slaughtered may have been given veterinary drugs banned for use in food-producing animals in Europe.
“Without assurances that third parties have implemented food safety systems equivalent to those provided by EU legislation, HSI urges the European Commission to exercise the Precautionary Principle and place a moratorium on imports of horsemeat of US origin,” Swabe said.
The full report on the availability of horsemeat in Belgium, France and the Netherlands can be downloaded here.