Photograph by Eric Gaillard, Reuters

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

Photograph by Eric Gaillard, Reuters

Europe’s Horse Meat Scandal Escalates, Investigations Ensue

Authorities probe a murky food supply chain to pin down the source.

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.