Horsemeat has been found in frozen lasagna sold in supermarkets in the U.K., Ireland, France and Sweden. Some weeks ago, it was first reported that products labelled as beef patties or burgers actually contained horsemeat and testing revealed that some contained from 30 to 100 percent horsemeat.
The horsemeat scandal has become an object lesson in how our food supply can be literally corrupted, with no one less than organized crime and the Italian and Polish mafia in particular, pointed to. Horsemeat could carry traces of phenylbutazone or “bute,” a drug given to racehorses to relieve pain and treat fevers, so consumers may have gotten a sprinkling of something besides oregano in their frozen entrees.
As a result, a number of European supermarkets have withdrawn products containing processed meat from their shelves. European Union agricultural ministers are meeting in Brussels to address what has become a growing scandal. French public health officials have called in representatives from the meat industry for crisis talks. Both U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson have both said that nothing less than the “full force of the law” will be visited upon any British business found to have defrauded the public by selling horse meat labelled as beef.
Indeed, police and officials from the Food Standards Agency raided two British meat companies earlier this week and all abattoirs in the U.K. are to be audited. Officials in Romania have been up in arms after an initial investigation linked the horse meat to them (so far, they say that an investigation of two slaughterhouses outside Bucharest has cleared them of being the source of the horse meat burgers).
For all this, public health officials contend that eating horse meat carries no real risks to health. Indeed, Paterson has emphasized that the horse meat scandal is, most of all, about fraud in the form of deceptive packaging of food products.
But there is some minimal risk, as Robin McKie writes in the Observer:
The problem is that bute can have side effects in human beings. It was once given to men and women to tackle conditions such as gout and arthritis until it was discovered that in some cases the chemical can trigger a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia. Those who become affected by the condition suffer from loss of red and white blood cells and, without prompt treatment, it is considered to be life-threatening. As a result, phenylbutazone was banned as a medication for humans by drug authorities on both sides of the Atlantic several decades ago.
Food safety professor Chris Elliott of Queens University, Belfast, emphasizes that, from eating any of the suspected items, one is only going to get one-millionth of the amount of phenylbutazone that a horse injected with the medication would. The real health hazard is, he points out, from the amount of fats and salt in the processed food products found to contain horse meat.
This is true; processed foods from the freezer case prepared somewhere else are about as far as you can get from meals from fresh, local ingredients. The horse meat scandal has not only become an object lesson in the endemic problems of today’s food industry. Like recent reports about horses slaughtered before each others’ eyes in British abattoirs, Europe’s horse meat scandal is an indictment of public health agencies who talk about standards while still allowing the wrong substances to get into the food chain.
One positive side-effect has been that local butchers and vegetarian suppliers have reported a rise in business. Pity that it took “horsemeatgate” and corrupted lasagna to make such happen.
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