The Irish Horse Meat Mystery

Who’s spiking Ireland’s beef supply with Black Beauties? An unappetizing mystery

The Irish Horse Meat Mystery
Can you spot the horse meat?*
Photograph by Pauline Beaudemont for Bloomberg Businessweek

Next time you’re eating in Ireland, stick to potatoes. The country has discovered horse meat in its beef supply. That’s right. Horse meat.

On Feb. 4 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) said DNA testing revealed that meat labeled beef and sold to two frozen-meat vendors, Rangeland Foods and Freeza Meats, in fact contained 75 percent and 80 percent horse meat, respectively. By the end of the week, merchants in Britain, France, and Sweden had joined Ireland in pulling products, which ranged from frozen lasagna to spaghetti Bolognese.

Leaner than beef, horse meat is considered a delicacy in some countries; in France it goes by the more palatable-sounding viande chevaline. “There’s a slight sweetness to it,” says Curtiss Calleo, co-founder of the eating club Gastronauts. “It has a rich taste, a little like alkaline.” In Japan you can find horse sashimi. Horse salami is popular in Italy. (Delizioso!) Not so in America—last year, after New York chef Hugue Dufour announced plans to serve horse tartare at his M. Wells Dinette, more than 1,000 horse lovers signed a petition in protest.

The U.S. has allowed horse slaughtering for food since 2011, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet approved any plant to do the job. (Many U.S. horses are given an anti-inflammatory drug called phenylbutazone that’s harmful to humans.) Ireland does slaughter horses, but most of the meat is exported to other countries. It seems to have been unknowingly imported, too.

The horse-as-beef deception was first discovered in early January, when the FSAI did random DNA testing on beef products from several supermarkets, a routine practice to ensure food quality. One “value range” beef patty sold at a Tesco supermarket was found to contain 29 percent horse meat. Authorities eventually traced the patty to Silvercrest Foods, an Irish frozen-meat supplier owned by ABP Food Group. Tesco dropped Silvercrest as a supplier; grocery chains such as Aldi and the Co-operative Group quickly followed. Burger King announced it, too, had found traces of horse DNA in some burgers and also stopped using Silvercrest. “We are determined to ensure that this never happens again,” Paul Finnerty, ABP’s chief executive officer, said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg News.

Irish food-safety authorities are still investigating how horse meat entered the production chain. “Somebody, someplace is drip-feeding horse meat into the burger-manufacturing industry,” Alan Reilly, FSAI’s CEO, told Ireland’s national broadcasting company, RTÉ. “We don’t know yet exactly where this is happening.” Adds Ray Ellard, FSAI’s consumer protection director: “It’s a matter that keeps unraveling.”

As the food supply chain becomes more globalized, unwelcome surprises such as horse burgers may be more common. Burger patties in America are made with a mixture of meat: Your Whopper may be part Texan, a smidge North Dakotan, and a bit Oklahoman. In the European Union, meat is allowed to move freely among member states.

“There’s a paper trail that suggests that the meat is Polish, but I’m not yet convinced,” says Susan O’Keeffe, a Labour Party senator who in the early 1990s was a key figure in the Beef Tribunal, an inquiry by the Irish Parliament into allegations of food supply fraud. “There are people in the industry willing to change labels on boxes. It has happened before. It can happen again.”

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