There’s a very fast-moving story breaking in the United Kingdom this past 24 hours: Millions of pre-made burgers sold by supermarkets in the United Kingdom and Ireland have been taken off the market after the meat they contain was found to contain DNA from both horses and pigs. More than a third of the products tested contained some DNA not from cows, and in individual burgers, the amounts ranged from very small to one-third. (Here are overnight stories from The Guardian, The Independent, and The Telegraph.)
The adulteration was discovered by Irish food authorities; Ireland’s food-safety rules are so tight that they include DNA testing for meat (as highlighted on Twitter by Irish food journalist Suzanne Campbell). At this point, the adulteration has been traced to three beef-processing plants, two in Ireland called Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods, and one in the U.K. called Dalepak Hambleton. Silvercrest, a subsidiary of ABP Foods, has pointed to “two continental European third-party suppliers who are the suspected source of the product in question,” and the Daily Mail says the source may be processors in Spain and the Netherlands that supplied a powdered protein, used to bulk up the burgers, which was supposed to be beef.
The illegal horsemeat may well be of European origin. But if I were a European journalist following this story, I’d look further afield as well. I’d look at Canada, Mexico and the United States, and I’d ask whether it is possible that the horsemeat originated in North America — and whether its risks include not just the non-disclosure of its presence, but undisclosed drug residues as well.
Two years ago, a member of the European Parliament raised a question that few people in the United States want to contemplate: Whether an unacknowledged trade channel is bringing meat from unwanted horses raised for competition in the United States into the E.U. via slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. (Since 2007, there has been no legal horse slaughter in the U.S.) This would be important to know, not just for disclosure, but because horses that are raced or shown in the U.S. are given performance-enhancing drugs that would never be used in food animals, and those drugs — especially phenylbutazone, known as PBZ — are toxic for humans.
PBZ in fact used to be a human drug, but was taken off the market in the 1960s because it was shown to cause aplastic anemia, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow its use in any horse that will be sent to slaughter for its meat. But in 2010, researchers at Tufts University’s veterinary school demonstrated in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that thoroughbreds being taken out of competition and sent for slaughter had been receiving PBZ, and predicted that many horses being sent for slaughter would still have PBZ residues in their flesh.
The researchers said: “The lack of oversight to prevent horses given PBZ from being sent to slaughter for human consumption as ordered by the FDA indicates a serious gap in food safety and constitutes a significant public health risk.”
This is an important concern, because the number of horses — and thus the amount of meat — coming out of the U.S., through the rest of North America, to Europe, is not small: 138,000 horses per year, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office, translating to 67 million pounds of meat per year according to the Tufts researchers. A report last April from the Humane Society of the United States underlined how big a risk to European consumers U.S. horsemeat might be.
(Note: Obviously I’m not dealing here with whether it is appropriate to eat horses — societies differ on that; we are dismayed by it in the U.S., but there are horsemeat butchers in every major market in Paris — or with the animal-welfare issue of shipping horses cross-border for slaughter, which is a huge concern that the GAO and HSUS both took up in their reports.)
It should be said that European authorities are aware of the risks. In 2010, the European Commission’s Health and Consumers Directorate-General audited Mexican slaughterhouses where horses from the U.S. are shipped and killed, and concluded that there was no way to guarantee that the animals were drug-free. It imposed a three-year deadline that happens to kick in this coming summer. After that point, any horsemeat shipped to the E.U. must be certified by a “lifetime passport” attesting that the horse was always drug-free — a standard that observers of the horse-butchery market say the U.S. will never be able to meet.
Elsewhere on the web, there are excellent examinations of the layered and shady process that funnels U.S. horses to slaughter, and voices asking for change. (For an example of the breadth of concern, here’s an article from the magazine Latitudes — be sure to read the comments — and a post in a harness-racing forum.)
But to focus for a moment just on the market end: There may be no way to reconstruct where the horse meat came from that ended up as “powdered protein” in the burgers that have been withdrawn from the Irish and U.K. market today. But given the known complexity of the food-processing industry around the world, the acknowledged pipeline of horsemeat from Mexico and Canada into the E.U., and the questionable food value of the horses being sent from the U.S. into Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses, the North American connection is worth considering. If I were continuing to cover this story, it is one of the leads I would be pursuing.