National Geographic News
A butcher selects horse meat.

A butcher selects horsemeat at his horse butchery shop in the old city of Nice, France.

Photograph by Eric Gaillard, Reuters

Catherine Zuckerman

National Geographic News

Published February 22, 2013

Europe's horse meat scandal escalated this week after Nestlé announced it was recalling certain pasta meals from stores in Spain, Italy, and France.

One of the world's best known food companies, the Switzerland-based Nestlé is the latest in a string of businesses that have detected varying amounts of horse—from traces of DNA to 100 percent meat—in products labeled as "beef."

"There is no food safety issue," Nestlé said in a statement, though "the mislabeling of products means they fail to meet the very high standards consumers expect from us."

Indeed, some comments posted on our previous horse meat story suggest that deception is the most grievous crime that's been committed against consumers.

"Everyone has the right to choose what to eat and what not [to eat]," noted one reader. Another wrote, "I don't think people have an issue with horse meat as much as they have an issue with horse meat being served as beef."

Nestlé has apologized and is implementing new quality assurance tests for its beef. The company is also suspending deliveries of products that were made with beef supplied by the German firm H.J. Schypke, which was linked to the tainted meat.

Searching for Answers

Why did this happen in the first place? In a world of food regulation and public-health policy, how could consumers be tricked on such an epic scale?

Answers remain unclear for at least two reasons.

First, the root of the problem has not been identified. People want to know where to point a finger, but "we can't say yet—that's what the investigation is for," says Beverley Cook of the British Food Standards Agency, which is conducting a "UK-wide survey of food authenticity in processed meat products."

The European Union has also instructed member states to conduct random tests for horse meat and report the results.

The scandal, which began in Britain but now involves multiple European countries, first sparked when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) issued a press release in January saying that some burgers labeled as "beef" had tested positive for horse and pig DNA. Since then, several European food manufacturers have scrambled to pull products from shelves—and have begun casting about for the culprits.

French authorities have placed the bulk of the blame on wholesaler Spanghero, suspending its license last week. According to the BBC, the company denies any wrongdoing and has since been allowed to resume production of certain types of meats and sausages.

Meanwhile, some Polish and Romanian slaughterhouses are being investigated as possible sources for the falsely advertised meat. In Yorkshire, England, arrests were made recently at the Peter Boddy abattoir, also believed to be involved in the scandal.

But ultimate responsibility has not been assigned to any one slaughterhouse or supplier, and the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency notes on its website that results of the department's survey won't be available until April.

A Complex Stew

Adding to the murkiness of this case is the nature of the food supply chain. Despite the growing farm-to-table trend and ascendant "locavore" mentality, the fact is that much of the way we get our food these days remains woefully convoluted. There's a big difference between buying meat at a farmer's market and picking up a package of cellophane-wrapped ground meat at the grocery store. And the sprawling maze between pasture and dinner plate is dotted with dealers, auctions, primary and secondary processing plants (aka slaughterhouses), and distributors. According to an exhaustive Guardian article on the horse meat controversy, "there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the [supply] chain can break down."

That's bad news for anyone trying to take control of his or her diet, or make ethically based choices when it comes to food. After all, what if what you see isn't what you get?

So: Has the horse meat scandal caused you to think twice about what you're eating? Post your thoughts below and let us know.

14 comments
Travis Kimball
Travis Kimball

Humans have been eating ( and enjoying - it really is very delicious and healthy) horses long before we tame and rode them. The meat is very sweet, rich and nearly fat free...the tenderest and most prized cuts come from older horses at the end of their natural lives. Misguided US laws restricting the slaughter of horses has unfortunately resulted in the suffering, starving, and abandonment of many older horses after they are no longer of use...I am confused and surprised that any company would knowing replace beef with horse meat, as in Europe horse meat is a delicacy and many times more expensive then much more common beef.

Asma Javed
Asma Javed

When a multinational or an international brand as "Nestle" or so on, Would produce such food quality, whether intentionally or deliberately, the consumer receiving it would check in the first place about what is he really buying is either pure or not?
When he finds about that it is contaminated would he go to a laboratory to make certain tests on his food, which involves a great deal of time and funds too.
And nobody knows for how long is this really in practice, and no one knows how many suffered and got acutely ill due to such practice. And it is possible too that many may have died or would be near to death? 
In future,none knows how will it react on our bodies and gene?
Would the impact be drastic or way hazardous as we may not have thought?
Who will be responsible for such fate of their consumers or how will they ever gonna compensate?

Sung Tam
Sung Tam

it's quite common in China,u guys should feel lucky that you dont  eat meats like poison every meal.

Lina Hassen
Lina Hassen

These people really should check what they put in they're meat! It'd absurd they can pass Horse & Pork off as beef! Cant the see Muslims can't eat pork!?

SuzyandEcho Johnson
SuzyandEcho Johnson

Absurd.... How can they continue to say there is not a health risk when they have already found meat with prohibited drugs, they obviously didn't test it. and they STILL do not know the origin! Does anybody believe that it isn't a health risk?????

Amy Phillips
Amy Phillips

I use my local butcher. They know what farm my meat is coming from and the conditions it's raised in. I find it's flavor much better too.

Ashok Malhotra
Ashok Malhotra

It is not just horse meat I would worry about if I was visiting Europe. Once a company is willing to deceive it can easily mix many other unwholesome red meats and sell as beef products. These other meats will not be revealed by present testing if it is confined to horse meat only. I would just skip meat and go vegetarian or at the most go for a white meat like chicken or fish in whole pieces that one can see and not something ground up. It is Ikea meat balls that have been found with horse meat, but as I said I worry less about horse meat than contamination by meat of carnivorus animals such as cats and dogs. I wish they would test for that too..

Valerie Lake
Valerie Lake

It is said that this is not a food safety issue.  I wonder if there is concern about the safety of horse meat from an unknown source.  Horses are given lots of medications that may or may not make consuming their tissue safe for consumers.  An example is phenylbutazone (commonly called bute.)  It's a bit like "horse aspirin," and it is used very widely.  I don't believe "bute" is considered safe for human consumption.

William L Reyna Jr
William L Reyna Jr

Could you even imagine the firestorm that would have occured if it was pork?

Heads would roll for sure.

Ashok Malhotra
Ashok Malhotra

It seems the European Union has asked for horse meat testing. This will reveal horse DNA but not contamination with other meats. If a company can deceive with horse meat why not other meats too like sheep, dog, donkey (recently discovered in Africa) etc.?

Carly Green
Carly Green

what did these people expect when they're buying unrecogniseable mystery meat in ready meals? this so called 'scandal' however, is giving a lot of business to struggling local butchers, which is only a good thing. maybe now people will learn that supermarkets aren't all sweetness and light.

Kathleen Hillman
Kathleen Hillman

I, personally, do not wish to ingest horse meat sold as beef...I think it is unethical and I worry about how this can happen...if it can happen in the UK, then it can happen in the United States, and that bothers me!

Cassandra Barndt
Cassandra Barndt

It's not. Most medications given to horses have been recalled or known to be dangerous to humans. Plus these horses are most likely auction lot horses with unknown backgrounds and health checks.

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