Let Them Eat Horse

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Here's a solution to the horse-meat crisis that's sweeping Europe: Eat more horse.

In case you missed it, Europe is in one of its periodic food frenzies. This time it concerns horse that was found posing as beef in cheap hamburgers, kebabs, frozen lasagna and spaghetti bolognese TV dinners.

A picture is emerging of an extended food-supply chain that ran from Romania, to Cyprus and the Netherlands, to France and the U.K.. Three men were arrested in the U.K. this week, while the French government said the French meat company Spanghero SAS had processed at least 750 tons of horsemeat that left the factory labeled as beef.

Governments are focused on a criminal conspiracy, but the problem is primarily systemic. The head of the U.K. Food Standards Agency said people may have been eating horse disguised as beef for years.

Labeling is a huge deal in our age of industrialized food processing. All meat in the European Union is supposed to have a certificate showing what it is. Horses have passports to show they haven't been treated with drugs such as phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory that can be harmful to humans.

Somewhere along the food industry's increasingly extended food-supply chain, though, the system of certificates was abused on a large scale. The problem has been decades in coming as the giant grocery chains have come to dominate the food industry, squeezing producer margins, and governments have relied more on the stores for quality control.

The horses that became lasagna meat won't have died in vain if the result is that companies such as Tesco Plc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Asda unit source their meat more directly, closer to the point of sale, and if the inspection system is upgraded. And why assume this is just about European beef? What about the labeling of organic meat? Or sustainably caught fish? Or frozen shark -- I'm sorry, cod -- dinners? The same price pressures exist on the suppliers of these foods.

In Europe, as in the U.S., we have to trust that someone is checking that what food labels say is true, and to make sure that happens we have food inspectors -- in the U.K. since at least 1855. Yet the U.K.'s local inspectors have had their staff numbers cut in recent years and inspections have more than halved since the late 1990s. Clearly, they failed. Same in France -- and the French are really picky about their food.

So what about that horse-meat bolognese? Brits and Americans generally won't eat horse, presumably because they think of horses as pets. (The U.S. mainly exports its unwanted horses for slaughter.) It can't be the taste, because Belgians, French, Italians, Chinese, Kazakhs, Mexicans, Japanese and many others love horse meat. It certainly isn't a health issue: Horse has lower cholesterol, 25 percent less fat and twice as much iron as beef.

And the beef that it substituted? The horse-meat scandal may have been triggered by a switch from U.K. suppliers last year, which in turn was caused by a change in EU regulations that made it illegal to describe ``desinewed meat'' -- a fine mince, sometimes called pink slime, that's mechanically rubbed from beef carcasses -- as meat. This U.K. product was a major ingredient in cheap hamburgers, pies and kebabs.

Desinewed meat was itself a replacement for an even cheaper byproduct called ``mechanically recovered meat,'' sometimes given the appetizing name of white slime, which has no muscle content at all. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University London, has been campaigning to have slime banned since the 1980s. "For 30 to 40 years, we have been producing microbiologically unstable sludge and dressing it up as food," he says. In order to protect against mad-cow disease, the U.S. Agriculture Department in 2004 restricted how much crushed bone there can be in these products.

Unable to use either kind of slime and then call it meat, U.K. producers and abattoirs looked around and abroad for other sources of cheap meat. They latched on to horse meat, some of which appears to have been from horses with forged passports.

The U.K. Food Standards Agency said this week that eight out of 206 horse carcasses tested so far showed traces of phenylbutazone. Although it has the British press worked up, it is barely an issue. The drug used to be administered to humans, too, but was discontinued except in cases of severe arthritis because of rare, but severe, side effects. U.K. Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies said in astatement you would need to eat 500 to 600 burgers with 100 percent horse meat in a day to get a single daily human dose of the drug from horse meat (phenylbutazone doesn't build up in your body over time). That's a lot of frozen lasagna.

More bad news may come, of course -- who knows what else is going on when producers act under the inspection radar. But the indications are that most of the horse was actual meat that came from inspected horse abattoirs -- for example in Romania -- and then had the labels switched further up the food chain.

Once the labeling issue is fixed, why not eat 100 percent horse instead of slime and say so on the box? Better still, make your own lasagna.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net