Horsemeat Scandal in Britain: Why It Matters

Posted on February 25, 2013


So some horsemeat found its way into “beef” products in Britain recently.  Investigations!  Scandals!  Arrests!  Why the uproar?  What’s the problem?

Well, if the horses had been raised for meat and sold with a correct label, it shouldn’t have been a problem.  After all, horse is consumed in a number of countries.  When I traveled to Central Asia and to Russia, I was served horsemeat several times.  Among other things, I learned that the Kazakhs are pretty particular about keeping the meat herds separate from the riding and sport herds, and for good reason.  (By the way – it tastes like beef.  Then again, I thought camel tasted like beef.  But I digress.)

Maybe you’re not a picky eater.  But if you figure meat’s meat and the unannounced substitution of horsemeat for beef isn’t that big a deal, think again.

First, it’s fraud, and a violation of trust between the food producers and the consumers.  If someone, somewhere in the food-production chain thinks it’s all right to profit a little by secretly diluting your beef with horseflesh, what will keep him from tainting your children’s milk with melamine, or your vegetables with formaldehyde – as has repeatedly occurred in China?

Second, do we think this horsemeat found its way into the food chain from herds raised for meat?  Doubtful!  The meat that people have been unknowingly consuming is almost certainly from various individually-owned horses which, for equally various reasons, went to auction.  Yes, sad, I know, but even worse, obtaining meat from such unregulated, untracked, unknown sources can actually be dangerous.  People’s aged pets, work animals, and injured race horses are often loaded with medications and supplements.  My neighbor’s three pleasure-riding horses are all on supplements and medications, including phenylbutazone (“bute”), which has been found in some of the contaminated meat products.  It’s a painkiller, so you can imagine that old, sick, and injured horses will often have this in their system.  Sadly, even healthy horses are expensive to keep; when they are too old, injured or sick to be of use, few owners will fund their “retirement” for years on end.  Some will do the next-best thing, and pay the $150 or so to have them euthanized.  But others will auction them, and then it’s anyone’s guess where they end up… and it is often the slaughterhouse*.  (I love my neighbor:  her horses will never end up on anyone’s table, because she is funding their retirement and will eventually bury them on her own land when they die at a ripe old age.  But she is the exception.)

Credit: Jay Schadler / ABC News

Third – well – most British (like Americans) just don’t see horses as food.  They are work animals, sport animals, pets, historic symbols, the same way we think of the wild mustangs or the wild ponies of Chincoteague – they occupy a place in the shared national psyche that just doesn’t lend itself to thinking of them as food.  If we Anglo-Americans are going to fill our feedlots and grazing lands with meat herds, those herds will be cattle.  So not only is slipping a little horsemeat into the system fraudulent, it is fraudulent in a way that many will find emotionally distressing.  It’s rather like discovering that the euthanized dogs and cats from the local animal shelter had somehow ended up in your evening casserole.

In China, where food safety has been compromised by fraud and people have died as a result, producers have actually been executed.   Britain is not so draconian; tainted meat from Eastern Europe has been a problem for years, yet only 13 people have been prosecuted since 2003, and most of them just get small fines.  Yet, in both countries, these problems persist.  If the fear of punishment is not a deterrent, and the temptation of profit is too great for producers to resist, then the only other option is to increase inspections, oversight, and enforcement.


*Horse slaughter in the US was effectively banned in 2007; it became possible again in 2012. However, until recently, horses sold at auction have been routinely shipped to Mexico and to Canada for slaughter.  Canada abruptly stopped accepting US horses in late 2012.