Whoa, Nelly! European Leaders Scramble to (Sur)Mount Horsemeat Scandal

National governments and European Union officials continued scrambling to uncover any further cases of horsemeat in beef-based food products, while disgusted diners contemplate the safety of their food system

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Diners across Europe continue to cast wary glances at their meals despite new steps by authorities to respond to the region’s horsemeat scandal. On Feb. 15, E.U. experts met to prepare testing and control measures for member nations seeking to uncover any other beef-based food products containing horse. That move came just 12 hours after officials in France said they’d identified the French meat-processing company that allegedly sold equine meat as beef to companies producing frozen and fast food.

Yet despite all the activity aiming to restore consumer confidence, other actions taken by food-safety authorities may have only increased public concern. On Feb. 14, British police arrested three people suspected of introducing horsemeat into the U.K.’s industrial-food system by selling it to unsuspecting clients as beef. That raised fears the horse-for-beef swindle might be a wider problem than feared — and one that has infiltrated the fresh-meat market as well as the processed-food chain.

(MORE: Pony Burgers? Horsemeat Scam Makes Europe Gag)

The scandal began in mid-January when authorities in Ireland discovered traces of horsemeat and pork in frozen hamburgers sold as pure beef. The resulting uproar expanded in February when industrially prepared food products containing beef in Britain were also found with varying levels of horseflesh. The turmoil spread to the continent, where supermarket chains quickly pulled beef products of suspect food brands from shelves. Testing has uncovered levels of horsemeat in nominally beef-based products running from 60% to 100%. About 17 Europe nations already implicated in the nag-in-the-nosh flap have launched investigations into slaughterhouses, meat suppliers and food processors.

There were hopes Thursday that the horsemeat crisis might soon be resolved. French officials announced on Feb. 14 they’d established that the Spanghero processing company in southwest France had intentionally sold a reported 42 tons of horsemeat as beef to 28 client companies operating in 13 countries. French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoît Hamon said customs labels on meat Spanghero bought from suppliers in Romania and Cyprus clearly stated the meat was horse. Yet records Hamon cited indicate those horse deliveries were later sold as beef for a €550,000 ($733,000) profit. Though Spanghero officials have hotly denied the charge — saying labels elsewhere on the meat indicated it was the beef ordered — Harmon says the considerably lower price the company was charged for horse would have most certainly alerted its managers that something was wrong.

“It seems the first actor in this chain to label the meat beef was indeed Spanghero,” Hamon said. ” The investigation shows Spanghero knew the meat labeled as beef could be horse. There was strong suspicion [for that]. This was either a very big mistake or deception for profit.”

Any hopes that a single guilty party in the case had been nabbed by Hamon quickly faded, however. Around the same time as the French announcement, police in the U.K. arrested three men at two different slaughterhouses on suspicions they too sold horsemeat to clients as beef. Perhaps worst yet, British food-safety authorities also said tests on eight horses slaughtered in the U.K. had tested positive for the powerful veterinary drug phenylbutazone — or bute — which can be harmful to humans in large doses. British officials sought to calm public fears by saying enormous quantities of the bute-tainted meat would be required before it posed any threat to humans — and noted six of the rendered horses had been exported to France anyway.

That added detail was in some ways reminiscent of the buck-passing and finger-pointing across borders that broke out in the wake of the initial revelations. But that blame game has largely given way to cooperation as the scandal has grown — and governments realized how vulnerable it leaves Europe’s highly regulated food markets.

Apart from minimal concerns over possible bute traces, there really isn’t much other hay to be made in Europeans discovering horsemeat impersonating beef in prepared food. In fact, countless people in Europe and Asia regularly buy and consume what the French buy as viande chevaline in special butcher shops — many preferring it to more common bifteck. The only real basis for alarmed reaction to the current scandal, then, is diners discovering — queasily — they swallowed more Mister Ed than Bessie in the frozen burger or lasagna.

But the strong reaction is motivated by other, legitimate reasons. First off, innocuous at it may seem, the horse-for-beef imposture constitutes massive consumer fraud victimizing people and companies across the E.U. — the world’s largest single market with a population of 503 million. Secondly, the apparent ease with which perpetrators were able to introduce illicit content that was rapidly distributed and consumed. Governments and the public are aware that far more nefarious forces could one day just as easily inject deadly substances into the industrial-food system. Less than two decades after the mad-cow scare forced diners to contemplate their meal as a potentially lethal threat, Europeans remain singularly wary of any signs of flagging food security. And that — rather than the yuck factor in discovering they’d been tricked into eating horse — is what has people across Europe with their current raging case of indigestion.

MORE: Europe Horsemeat Scandal Widens: Frozen Lasagna, Spaghetti Found Tainted