The proverbial old lady who swallowed a horse and was “dead of course” is apparently no longer just a nursery rhyme character. Millions of people in Europe have been discovering, to their horror, that they’ve been eating horses, too.
It began in Ireland with the discovery, last month, that there was horsemeat mixed into hamburger, and escalated, through various levels of shock and horror, to the revelation last Friday that the “beef” in the lasagna packaged by frozen food company Findus was, in fact, 100 percent horse.
The scandal has now spread to Britain, Poland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden – doubtless with many more countries to come.
According to The Independent, it all started in Romania, where a law banning cart horses from the roads left a lot of horses “out of work.”
Horse-drawn carts were a common form of transport for centuries in Romania, but hundreds of thousands of the animals are feared to have been sent to the abattoir after the change in road rules.
The meat from the slaughtered horses then went on a tour of Europe:
It came from abattoirs in Romania through a dealer in Cyprus working through another dealer in Holland to a meat plant in the south of France which sold it to a French-owned factory in Luxembourg which made it into frozen meals sold in supermarkets in 16 countries.
French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon is concerned that some of the horsemeat may, in fact, be donkey. And Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called it an “abominable and disgusting” affair, for which someone would have to pay.
The CEO of Findus called the affair “a breach of contract and fraud,” and Findus officials say they will be filing a legal complaint in France after evidence showed the presence of horsemeat in its supply chain “was not accidental.”
On the European continent, there’s nothing sacrilegious about eating horses. The main upset seems to be about the mislabeling of food packages.
But in the U.K., eating horses is sort of like eating dogs – a huge culinary no-no. The British love their horses, whether the sleek racing kind, or the shaggy cart-pulling kind, or the heroes of stage and screen like Joey in War Horse.
If horses, and perhaps donkeys, are in your burger or your lasagna, what else, you wonder, may be in there?
That love affair is, of course, something of a fantasy. The racing industry kills horses who don’t quite measure up, and simply sends the carcasses to Europe where horsemeat is more popular. And when times are tough in the U.K., horses quickly go back on the menu, as they did in World War II when other kinds of meat became scarce. (In World War I, most of Joey’s kind didn’t do so well, either. By the end of the conflict, 484,000 of the million horses and mules taken to war by the British were dead.)
Still, the thing that’s upsetting everyone is not so much the idea of eating horses as the fact that the whole meat industry may be riddled with fraud. And if horses, and perhaps donkeys, are in your burger or your lasagna, what else may be in there??
“This is a conspiracy against the public,” said British farm minister Owen Paterson. “I’ve got an increasing feeling that it is actually a case of an international criminal conspiracy.”
And Prime Minister David Cameron has called it “very shocking.” (Rather than eating his horses, the P.M. prefers to ride them around the countryside so he and his tony friends can hunt, kill and eat all kinds of other animals instead.)
Another concern is that the horsemeat from Britain may be laced with the drug phenylbutazone, which is routinely given to sporting horses as an anti-inflammatory.
Meanwhile, the popular tabloid press in Britain is having a field day. “Nabbed, stabbed and beaten: wild horses to go in our beef,” screamed the headline on Sunday’s mass-selling Sun newspaper over a story alleging cruelty to the horses being slaughtered in Romania.
And today, Tuesday, The Sun followed up with another horror story, this time about horses who have gone missing in Ireland:
A SHOCKING 70,000 horses are “unaccounted for” in Northern Ireland, sparking fears some may have ended up in food, [the] Labour [party] claimed last night.
The report claims that “criminal traders are forging passports and microchips required for horses under EU law to sell them for meat.”
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh told the [House of] Commons: “Unwanted horses are being sold for ten euros and sold on for meat for 500 euros — a lucrative trade.”
Her revelations came as [the Prime Minister] tried to calm fears after Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said horse meat could contain [phenylbutazone], which can trigger a serious blood disorder in some humans.
European governments are showing signs of panic that if the whole mess is not brought under control very quickly, consumers may worry about buying meat at all. Memories are still vivid over the “mad cow” crisis of the 1990s, which saw British beef banned in the EU over fears of a degenerative brain disease that can infect humans who eat cows suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. BSE or Mad Cow Disease. BSE was blamed for the deaths of 180,000 cattle and more than 150 people in the U.K. outbreak.
So governments across Europe are continuing to reassure their constituents that all is well, that it’s just a packaging scare, and that eating meat is perfectly safe.
P.S. But wait, there’s more.
Yesterday, Russia joined other European countries in banning meat from the United States that contains the drug ractopamine. According to NPR:
U.S. companies that export meat to the European Union in fact, routinely make sure that their meat is free of ractopamine. But exporters to Russia have not been willing to do this. Even though meat exports to Russia have grown rapidly in recent years, U.S. exporters haven’t been willing to spend the extra money required to supply it with ractopamine-free products.
Ractopamine is considered safe by the Food & Drug Administration, so anyone in the United States, eating cows, pigs or turkeys is getting a regular dose of this drug.
Best do yourself a favor and switch to a plant-based diet.