Beef products have been found to contain horse DNA, or have been pulled from shelves on suspicions thereof, in several EU countries now, including: Ireland, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain.
The first tainted samples, found in Ireland in January, led to accusations that the meat had originated in Poland. Further tests in Polish slaughterhouses didn’t find any traces of horse DNA, however.
The next in line for blame from Western European media was Romania. Last Monday, Britain’s Daily Record exclaimed: “Wild horses caught by Romanian peasants and sold to gangs for £10 may have ended up on British dinner plates.”
But it seems the focus on Eastern Europeans could be misguided. The UK’s Food Standards Agency shut down a slaughterhouse in northern England and a meat plant in Wales after an investigation revealed horse meat had been sold as beef for burgers and kebabs.
The details of the wider scandal show how complicated and potentially under-regulated Europe’s market for meat really is. The frozen lasagnas withdrawn from British and Irish stores were made by a Swedish company. But the product was prepared in factories in Luxembourg by a French company. That company received the tainted meat from another French company, which in turn received it from a Romanian slaughterhouse.
To make matters more complicated, the deal was apparently arranged by traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands. And the British media report that Italian and Polish gangs are behind this multi-million-dollar criminal scheme.
Britain’s Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said, “I’m concerned that this is an international criminal conspiracy here and we’ve really got to get to the bottom of it.”
In an effort to calm worries, the European Commission invited officials from EU member states affected by the scandal for talks to find a solution. They proposed increased DNA testing of meat products to assess the scale of this scandal.
“The tests will be on DNA in meat products in all member states,” European Union Health Commissioner Tonio Borg told reporters after this meeting.
Mr Borg also said the Commission would accelerate work on potential changes to EU labeling rules that would force companies to state the country of origin on processed meat products. Currently the requirement only applies to fresh beef, and is expected to be extended to fresh lamb, pork and poultry from December 2014.
Horse meat consumption is not dangerous for humans, however “bute,” a painkiller used by veterinarians, has been found in eight horse carcasses at slaughterhouses in the UK. The meat from six of those horses was exported to France, where horse meat is regularly consumed.
The Veterinary Residues Committee warns that bute has “the potential for serious adverse effects in consumers, such as blood dyscrasia (a rare but life-threatening condition).” However, the drug was found in amounts that posed “very little risk to human health,” the BBC quoted England’s chief medical officer as saying.
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