by Marion Nestle
Feb 19 2013

The horsemeat scandal–an object lesson in food politics

The unfolding drama around Europe’s horsemeat scandal is a case study in food politics and the politics of cultural identity.

Cultural identity?  They (other people) eat horsemeat.  We don’t.

Most Americans say they won’t eat horsemeat, are appalled by the very idea, and oppose raising horses for food, selling their meat, and slaughtering horses for any reason.

These attitudes have created dilemmas.  Since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006, roughly 140,000 horses a year have been transported to Canada and Mexico to be killed.  Whether this is better or worse for the horses is arguable.  Some—perhaps most—of that meat will be exported as food.

As Mal Nesheim and I wrote in our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, most—more than 90%—of domestic horsemeat ended up in pet food (the rest was eaten or shipped to Europe).  In the 1920s, horse slaughterhouses started pet food companies as a means to dispose of the meat.  Horsemeat remained a major ingredient of dog foods throughout the 1940s.

Since then, pet food companies replaced horsemeat with meats from other animals.  Although it continues to be permitted in pet food, I’m not aware of any company that would dare use it.  It would have to be disclosed on package labels.

That brings me to the European horsemeat crisis, one brought about by advances in DNA technology that allow officials to test for species in foods.

I’m indebted to Joe O’Toole, president of Lucullus, a French specialty food company, for keeping me up to date on the unfolding saga of how horsemeat got into European hamburger and so many other foods.  He sent me links to early stories:

The problem first emerged earlier in January when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland handed over results of DNA tests it had carried out on burgers produced in Ireland for sale in the UK. Samples from 10 of 27 products sourced from three processing plants had tested positive for horse DNA. One sample is said to have contained 29 percent horse.

As the article explained, the immediate response was “a relatively faultless exercise in damage control.”  Food processors immediately recalled their products and Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, placed an ad and followed it up with a video apology.  This is viewed as excellent damage control.  Although Tesco shares dropped by 1 percent for a loss of  $475 million, it could have been worse.  

Leaving aside the cultural prohibitions against eating horsemeat, here’s what I find fascinating:

  • DNA technology made this possible.
  • The supply chain is so complicated and involves so many countries—Romania, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain, Poland, France, and, no doubt, others—that where the meat comes from is impossible to trace.
  • The finger pointing  over who is to blame.
  • The enormous number of companies involved.
  • The idea that this is a drug issue (horses are treated with drugs).
  • The idea that horse transport is used as a cover for smuggling (drugs and people).
  • The involvement of organized crime (if selling horsemeat is illegal…).

By far the best place to start on this story is Felicity Lawrence’s Horsemeat Scandal: The Essential Guide, in The Guardian. She did this as a Q and A:

1. Where did the horsemeat scandal begin?

2. Where did the horse and pig found by the Irish in beef products come from?

3. Why did some products contain so much more horse than others?

4. How did the rest of Europe get involved?

5. Is the source of the Irish horsemeat the same as the French one?

6. Why are the supply chains so complex?

7. Why has it happened?

8. How is the meat industry regulated?

9. What about industry claims that it has full traceability?

10. What happened to government control of food safety and standards?

11. Where do the horses come from?

12. What part do UK horse abattoirs play?

13. Why are governments talking about organised crime?

14. Is it a health problem?

I will have more to say about this later, as more details emerge.  Stay tuned!

Addition, February 27: Australia Food Safety News offers this terrific infographic on the scandal.

  • Anthro

    It really is a cultural oddity that we delight in the consumption of cows, but are repelled by the consumption of horses!

    As a young anthropology student, it was a rite of passage to try to consume (well, at least taste) a variety of things that were taboo in our own culture. We all went to plant nurseries and made a point of very visibly putting a bug between our teeth and crunching it as visibly as possible in front of the check out person, for example. Eating the worm in the bottom of a mescal (Mezcal) bottle was another favorite. This one was known to impress professors at parties! The bottle would be passed around very ritualistically, and the tension would mount as it emptied–who would be first to gulp the worm along with the last swig?

    Personally I am delighted at the wonders of DNA testing and the ensuing revelations. My husband and I were talking about this and wondered among other things, what might be revealed about paternity in a mass testing exercise?

    At the very least, food processors are going to be held to a much higher standard going forward–on ingredient labeling and source verification anyway. I will, indeed, stay tuned!

  • Cathy RD

    This really is a fascinating topic. Some countries eat horse, others dogs, and we seem appalled at them all, so yes the cultural issue is huge. Yet we’re constantly beating the drums of food security, local food, and food waste — what else do we do with the horses that die? Place them in a pet cemetary? Cremate them? Boil their bones for non-vegan glue? While they’re alive can we harvest their pee for hormones?

    What separates horses from cows? Unlike cows, rich people have horses for pleasure, everyone used to use them for transportation and work, Liz raced Black Beauty to stardom.

    Then comes all the food system wranglings and subterfuge. Organized Crime, Money Laundering, Smuggling — Oh my!

    I can hardly wait for your book on this one Marion!

  • Mark

    Just a side note, but the ban on horseslaughter in the US has been lifted as of last november. from what i’ve read no one expects a large market for horse meat to develop in the states but it seems to be a lucrative export.

  • The solution, at a personal level: eat real meat, not ground, processed. processed meat may also contain pink slime, and be totally safe.

  • HighlySkeptical

    Dudes, this isn’t just a Euro scandal. Nestle’s Buitoni line has tested positive for horse. Go to your local supermarket and stare at the frozen Buitoni tortellini. It’s horse.

    Also those private label “beef” products in Trader Joe’s freezer aisle — contain horse. TJ is owned by Aldi, and those Aldi products have tested positive for horse. It’s the same food in a different package.

    When the FDA finish its own testing and report? I bet never.

  • SAO

    Thank you for covering this.

    It’s clear that cheap food is a culprit, particularly ready-made meals or meats sold in cardboard boxes.

    How much better are the more expensive meats — like steak sold at the butcher counter at a grocery store or Whole Foods?

    What about fast food restaurants? Or low-end chains?

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  • susan rudnicki

    Let me educate a few of you. Horses in the US are uniformly treated with drugs BANNED for use in food animals. The use of Phenylbutazone, a anti-inflammatory which causes aplastic anemia in humans, is especially common in racehorses whose owners deem them no longer a worthwhile investment. ONE DOSE of this drug disqualifies an animal for use as human food, and there is no allowable withdrawal period. Most sport and pleasure horse have also received in their lives wormers, pain meds and a raft of other drugs clearly labeled “not for use in food animals” It is MUCH more than a political scandal, Ms Nestle, and I am shocked with your blithe dismissal of a subject you do not seem to have investigated very deeply. American horse slaughter plants were driven to close by the horrific conditions endured, not only by horses, but by the towns where these plants were located. Business prospects withered, sewerage systems overflowed with blood despite complaints from municipal authorities, great dumpsters of offal, hides and bones stood in the open attracting vermin, taxes were not paid by these European owned, taxpayer subsidized outlaw abattoirs, and the only people who would work in such soul numbing operations were illegal aliens and former convicts. If you doubt me, check the reams of documentation accumulated by the little town of Kaufman TX which endured this horse slaughter blight for decades before finally shutting it down. The horse slaughter industry is driven by demand overseas and overbreeding schemes in the US by breed registries using slaughter as a culling mechanism for overproduction. Members of these associations are advised to support slaughter. The breed registries counsel how to shelter income with the loss write-off from horses not deemed perfect. It is the puppy mill counterpart in the horse world. There are over 900 pages of FOIA (freedom of information act) documents compiled by our own USDA of the Dekalb slaughter plant showing horrific abuse of horses in the slaughter pipeline, from animals arriving with legs ripped off in shipment to eyes dangling to pregnant mares sprawled on the killing floor with the foal cut from their abdomen as they are still writhing. All of these just mentioned conditions are a violation for slaughter for human consumption. Whether you are concerned about the welfare issues—which many here are clearly not—the contamination of the meat supply is of great import. Phenylbutazone was once used experimentally for humans till it was found to cause cancer. The great majority of the horsemeat exported from Mexico and Canada is contaminated by this drug and others—it is not tested and the medication tracking of horses in not done. Do not put great store by the EU Equine “Passport System” either, as there has been ample evidence the system is corrupt, passport numbers being traded on the black market and the oversight is full of holes.

  • Suzanne

    Here are two recent articles considering the development of horse slaughter facilities for export and U.S. consumption:

    I truly hope activists and concerned citizens can stop this industry from launching.

  • Amanda

    Zoo animals eat horsemeat. Nebraska has horse as the number one ingredient as most of their exotic carnivore foods.

  • susan rudnicki

    Amanda—cite your source for the zoo animal assertion. There is a big reason why pet food manufacturers stopped using horse, and the points I made in my post above yours are a big reason. People are concerned with aldulterants and residues and zoo animals are not exempt

  • Bonnie Kohleriter

    Horse meat isn’t like beef. Cattle don’t pass from owner to owner. As
    their beef is used for food their owners know they can’t give them
    medications unfit for the human. Horses do pass from owner to owner. As their meat isn’t used for food by and large, they are given
    wormers and pain killers not to be a part of human consumption. The owner, when passing the horse to another owner isn’t likely to give details regarding the horse’s medical history. If the last owner decides to send the horse to the slaughter house for its meat, BINGO you have contaminated horse meat unbeknown to you in the food chain.
    Many people don’t take seriously what they put into their mouth today, but when some get sick, then the public moans carrying on. Do we as a country really want to slaughter horses in the United States knowing it will be very difficult to control knowing what the horses have in their flesh.

  • Yeah I agree it is just so peculiar that we are slobbering to get our hands on cow meat but shun horse meat. But I don’t see that changing any time soon in the US

  • The Inevitable Re-emergence of the Traditional, High Street Butchers Shop

    Every cloud has a silver lining; at least, that’s what my mother would tell me as a child. Each time disaster struck my little world; a buckled wheel on my new bicycle, the loss of the spanner for my Meccano set, and so on, would quickly reduce me to tears and, she would comfort me by saying “Never mind dear, every cloud has a silver lining, I’ll speak to your father about it tonight…” As childhood passed into adulthood, it’s an old adage that I have carried with me; indeed, I often quoted it to my own children when their fragile little lives took a turn for the worst.
    Another fond childhood memory is; Saturday morning’s trip to the local Butchers with my mother, to choose the Joint of Lamb or Beef for the weekend roast and; more often than not, we would both leave the shop a little later, quite satisfied, she with a succulent leg of Welsh Lamb, or a tender Topside of Beef in the shopping basket, and me, with a free copy of the “Beano”; a children’s comic which my parents didn’t subscribe to. It wasn’t so much that I had developed a macabre interest for butchers shops, rather, it was the friendly nature of the butcher himself which seemed to impart a feeling of goodwill into our Saturday morning shopping, and consequently; I always looked forward to a visit to “Harry’s, the High Street Butchers Shop” “Good morning Mrs Bresco, and you, young James, are you being a good boy for your Mum? Now what’ll it be this weekend Mrs B…, I have some beautiful free range Buxted chickens; ready dressed for the oven, or how about; a nice rib of Angus beef? And very tender it is too,” he would add reassuringly.
    Since the advent of the ubiquitous Super market, the traditional High Street Butchers Shop has been steadily declining, due entirely to our dependence on Supermarket shopping, at least in the cities, that is, as some of the smaller rural villages; who haven’t been blessed with a Supermarket, still manage to hold their own; maintaining an age old tradition of providing the local residents’ with; fresh, safe and locally produced meat products. However, since the recent food scare and, frighteningly revealing, DNA sampling; across the whole range of meat products, quite soon the tide will turn, as more and more shoppers return to trusted, traditional establishments’ like; “Harry’s,” where fresh, wholesome and unadulterated meat products are for sale; amidst an atmosphere of convivial geniality and, a warm welcome, something else that the supermarkets have denied us for so long.

    Does, “Every cloud have a silver lining?” in this particular case; I believe it does.

    James A Bresco

  • Suzanne

    I was concerned about the comment regarding Trader Joe’s and Aldi’s products. I wrote on the TJ web site inquiring whether they carry Aldi’s meat. Here’s the response I received:

    Dear Suzanne,

    Thank you for your email. Trader Joe’s does not carry any Aldi’s brand items in our stores.

    Trader Joe’s
    Customer Relations

  • Jan

    At first I personally didn’t see it as a serious concern given that other cultures ingest it, while we, on the other hand, ingest meat that other cultures don’t either. But the comment about live horses being treated with pain killers and wormers, because they’re not intended for human consumption, is definitely calls for a level of concern.

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  • Just returned from the United Kingdom and this Horsemeat Scandal is HUGE. I would liken it to our “pink slime” controversy last year.

    Consumers feel duped that they have no idea what is really in their food supply, where it comes from and how badly it may be contaminated. Plus, you’re paying for something entirely different than what you thought you were. Social norms aside, doubt the healthiest horses are used for processing and they are administered drugs that are illegal for human consumption. Plus, in this case, there is more than just a trace of pork in the beef products which is forbidden in the Jewish and Muslim communities.

  • TR

    Gosh, poor businessmen just trying to make a profit and y’all wanna regulate them out of business. Why can’t ya just let them serve you de-wormer laden horse meat in your hamburger or is it a hot dog? Wouldn’t an application of “don’t ask, don’t tell” work here so that businesses can operate unfettered by silly government regulations? (pfft, hee hee)

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  • sandra longley

    I got info from an interview from Nestle to a EU paper….I have some serious concerns about the statement in the article that if horsemeat is used it would have to be revealed, all the pet food ingrediants say is “meat byproduct and animal digest..a trip to the FDA website discussed slaughter and rendering plants..I got these facts,, a 1200 lb horse produces 360 lbs of meat or only 30% of the carcused is used..840 lbs goes to the rendering plant..usually located near a slaughter ground up guts and spine brain et ..all the parts containing the most toxic becomes the protein in farm food for livestock, and it lists on the website 36% to poulttry-36 to pet foods and then down to hogs ect and lists 3% to cannot be included in cow feed since the mad cow outbreak which came from feeding dead cows rendered into feed..but they allow this by product of horsemeat..which is the most toxic part in other animals food we eat and in our pet food..that is appox 20,000,000 lbs just from US horses f this rendered cooked product..which is considered protein..Also rendering plants is where our Euthanised horses go that are full of the chemicals vets used to put them down..sick horses, cancer cows and downers..all suffering from disease

  • Bailey McKay

    I believe we have ethical pacts between ourselves and our animal servants. To take an animal of high intelligence, that will carry you from danger, that will also carry you into danger if that’s your choice, will hoe your fields, haul your wagons, carry police & rescue to places they could not otherwise manage, and offers perhaps the best of all possible therapy for those with cerebral palsy, brain injury, and other problems needing the special rocking, 3-D motion therapy that riding brings – and not to be matched by a machine; for the camaraderie, the air, the smell of the animal itself and it’s friendship, bring healing magic to this fortunate therapy: it brings special joy to a life that is otherwise more constrained than the averagc. To view this, our friend, as a regular food source? Is there no better use for their bodies once they die? For I can’t see taking an animal such as I have truthfully described, and giving them slaughter as their reward. People have to eat. But people don’t have to be indiscriminate. If a starving man shot a horse in front of me & began to carve it up for food for himself and family, I would be sad, but would probably help him. Starvation of a human cannot compete with animal life. That being said, if the horse were my personal :friend, as it were, I’d probably jump up & ride the animal away, faster than his bullet. 🙂 And come back with some Burger King. 🙂 To kill a domesticated and faithful animal for the likes of Burger King, Taco Bell, et. al. That’s Revolting. Thumbs down.

  • Josh

    @ Susan Rudnicki:

    check for yourself.

    I for one would rather see an animal be used as feed for another rather than be tossed into the landfill. call me crazy but it does seem a little like the circle of life if one animal feeds another with its meat. sarcasm intended.

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  • MorganLvr

    I doubt it, since the EU has banned the importation of horse meat from the US, the only way we can access the EU is through Canada and Mexico and I think that too will be ending soon.

    Horses in the US are NOT food animals, They are regulated as companion animals and about 70% of equine veterinary medications contain ingredients that are banned for any use in any food animal – such a phenylbutazone – and also many of the universally used over-the-counter equine products do too. NO withdrawal period for banned substances.

    Even for the many substances that do have withdrawal periods, we have absolutely NO way to track what a given horse has been given or when it was given, so a withdrawal period is utterly useless.

    The majority of US horses that go to slaughter are obtained by “kill buyers” who are petty criminals and thugs who obtain the horses any way then can – theft, purchasing horses under false pretenses, fraud, fixed auctions – anything goes. They no nothing about the horses or their medical history and they don’t care. They just forge whatever documentation they need and that’s it. The EU inspectors find banned substances and forged documentation in our horses in Mexico and Canada every time they inspect.

    FVO Inspection of Mexican Plant OFFICIAL:

    FVO Inspection Report Canada OFFICIAL:

    Canadian Response To FVO Inspections:

    The 2013 regulations for 3rd country export of horse meat was supposed to require a traceability system comparable to the passport system, but so far those regulations haven’t been enforced. Since we have no traceability system, our horses are not supposed to be accepted at any EU certified horse slaughter plant. But, as far as I know, Canada and Mexico are still accepting them. Of course, Canada and Mexico are no more in compliance than we are.

    The EU REALLY needs to enforce these regulations because our horses really are unfit for human consumption.

  • MorganLvr

    That would be the USDA doing the inspecting. They say they did the inspections and didn’t fine any horse, and that the US food chain is safe because we don’t have any horse slaughter plants here so there’s no handy access to horse meat – unless of course those who want to bring horse slaughter back on US soil are successful.

    If they are, our beef industry will be very sorry they so rabidly supported reopening the domestic horse slaughter plants. Americans will stop eating beef in any form – no kidding. We know what’s in our horses and how the killers acquire them and how cruel they are. We already blame the beef industry for the millions they’ve spent lobbying for the return of horse slaughter.

    80% of Americans – including horse owners – are very strongly opposed to horse slaughter. That’s a lot of angry consumers.

  • MorganLvr

    Zoos are turning more and more away from horse meat and going to beef.

  • MorganLvr

    We’ve been trying to make that point for YEARS. Read the labels on horse products for yourself. We don’t even have to get bute tabs one at the time from our vets. It’s not regulated like that here. If your vet knows you and that you know what you’re doing, they’ll sell you a whole bottle without even writing a script. And even if the did write a script, it wouldn’t be of any use, because no one keeps detailed records of these things with horses.

    Horses are NOT food animals in the US. REALLY.

  • MorganLvr

    Haven’t you been reading any of this? OUR horses are contaminated with substances that are banned from the human food chain. It could harm and/or contaminate the other animals that consume it.

    That slaughter plant in Nebraska is NOT slaughtering US horses! They are importing horse meat from other countries. Who knows whether it’s US horses or not, but THEY don’t believe the horse meat they import is from the US and therefore probably too contaminated to feed to ANYTHING.

    I have corresponded with them.

  • MorganLvr

    We KNOW our horse products are not safe for humans. Besides, when you live in the area of a horse slaughter plant, your horse is in GREAT danger of being stolen. This is NOT speculation or hearsay. It is what happens. Too many of us have lived in the vicinity of these plants and have personal experience. I do.