PARIS––At least 28 companies in 13 European nations plus Hong Kong have been involved in marketing horsemeat as beef, French government investigators assessed in mid-February 2013, predicting that more alleged perpetrators would be exposed by ongoing investigations.
Entrepreneurs seeking to resume horse slaughter in the U.S. have argued that they would market to an upscale clientele in nations including Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Japan, who would demand that horses were transported and killed humanely. But the horse meat-as-beef scandal has revealed just the opposite: by far the greater portion of the European horse meat trade involves the lowest priced meat products, in which the ingredients are most easily disguised, and about which consumers and regulators tend to ask the fewest questions.
“The motivation for passing off horse meat as beef appeared to be financial,” affirmed Angela Charlton of Associated Press on February 10, 2013, summarizing statements by Benoit Hamon, the French junior minister for consumer goods.
Though horse meat is still openly consumed in France, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called the substitution of horse meat for beef an “abominable” fraud.
The horse meat-as-beef scandal erupted when on January 15, 2013 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland disclosed that horse DNA had been found in burger products sold by major British and Irish supermarkets. The British Food Standards Agency confirmed the finding, discovering that 29 of 2,401 products tested included at least 1% horse DNA. Expanded testing soon found that some “beef lasagna” products contained from 30% to 100% horse meat.
Silvercrest Foods, headquartered in Ireland, recalled 10 million suspect burgers and other products including ground meat. Several other companies also recalled products. Ireland, with the fastest-growing horse slaughtering industry in Europe, was initially suspected to be the source of the horsemeat sold as beef. Of the 57,000 horses killed in Ireland for human consumption since 2008, when 2,002 horses were slaughtered, 24,000 were killed in 2012 alone, Irish agriculture minister Simon Covency told Dan Griffin of the Irish Times.
But two other companies involved in the recalls, Findus and Aldi, blamed the French meat supplier Comigel. Other companies pointed toward Romania and Poland. Romania, where horses are still widely used for farm work, is a known major supplier of horsemeat, and exports about 40,000 horses per year for slaughter in other nations. Poland exports about 25,000 horses per year for slaughter, but has no slaughterhouses licensed to kill horses for human consumption, Polish deputy veterinary officer Jaroslaw Naze told media.
“The United Kingdom imported 6,200 tons of beef from Poland in 2012, 3.5 times the amount imported in 2010, because of cheap prices, although this still represented less than 3% of all beef imports,” noted James Meikle, Jemma Buckley and Felicity Lawrence of the Guardian.
Despite the fingers pointed abroad, the first three reported arrests for alleged fraud in connection with selling horsemeat as beef came in Wales and Yorkshire on February 14, 2013. One of the men who were arrested was an employee of the Peter Boddy Licensed Slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.
“Horses killed during Grand National meetings at Aintree have been taken away for years by a Yorkshire slaughterhouse now suspected of supplying horse meat for burgers and kebabs, Irish Times London editor Mark Hennessy reported on February 15, 2013. “The firm, owned by Peter Boddy, was closed down earlier this week after it was raided by police and food safety inspectors, who believe it supplied horse meat to a Welsh plant.
“Two horses were put down by lethal injection in last year’s Grand National,” Hennessy recalled. Aintree spokespersons confirmed that any carcasses removed would be “totally unsuitable for consumption,” Hennessy wrote.
The British charity Animal Aid told Hennessy that more than 1,100 ex-racehorses were killed or rendered by British slaughterhouses in 2011.
Bute & trichinella
British food minister David Heath acknowledged on February 7, 2013 that eight horses out of a lot of 206 whose carcasses were tested for contamination during the preceding week showed traces of the anti-inflamatory drug phenylbutazone. Called “Bute” for short, phenylbutzaone is often given to racehorses, but is banned for use in animals who will be slaughtered for human consumption, because ingesting only small amounts can induce conditions including heart failure. Six of the contaminated carcasses were shipped to France.
Both French agriculture minister Stephane Le Foll and British chief medical officer Sally Davies asserted that the level of phenylbutazone found would only be dangerous if a consumer ate 500 horse hamburgers per day.
But Damian Carrington, James Meikle and Simon Neville of The Guardian a week later revealed that “In July 2012 the Veterinary Residues Committee, which advises the government, warned that it had ‘repeatedly expressed concern’ about bute entering the food chain. Only 145 tests were conducted in the whole of 2012 and about 50 a year before that,” Carrington, Meikle, and Neville wrote. “In the case of the two carcasses that tested positive for bute in 2012 and were not reported to the FSA for months, the horsemeat is thought to have left abattoirs in May and October, but the positive results did not arrive at the FSA until 10 days ago. In the meantime the meat had gone to the Netherlands and France.”
The rate of bute contamination found by the limited testing done in 2010-2012 and early 2013 “would mean hundreds of affected UK horses entering the food chain every Year,” Carrington, Meikle, and Neville pointed out.
But veterinarian Richard A.L. Brown of the Bellevue Veterinary Center in Banff, Scotland, warned that the worm-carried disease trichinella might be a greater threat to the public from consuming horsemeat than the risk of ingesting bute. “I suspect the only saving grace may be the cooking by the consumer,” Brown told the International Society for Infectious Diseases’ Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases.
Concern about grazing animals ingesting and passing along trichinella cysts rose in Europe after cysts were discovered in December 2012 in the carcasses of feral pigs shot by hunters near Malaga, Spain.
“Despite claims that trichinellosis has been eradicated from Europe, there have been a number of cases reported over the last decades, mainly due to ingestion of horse meat. The country with the largest number of cases is Romania,” posted ProMed wildlife disease moderator Pablo Beldominico.
Horse spelled backward
Meanwhile, Associated Press correspondent Toby Sterling reported, “A company called Draap Trading Ltd. moved to the center of Europe’s horsemeat mislabeling scandal. Draap is ‘horse’ spelled backward in Dutch,” Sterling noted.
“Court documents in the city of Breda, Netherlands, show that a Jan Fasen was convicted on January 18, 2012 as the main suspect in a case where hundreds of thousands of kilograms of horsemeat or horsemeat mixed with beef were mislabeled as containing only beef and sold to two unnamed French buyers.
“Jeffrey Grootenboer, owner of the freezer warehouse Nemijtek, readily identified Fasen from a photograph as also being the owner of Draap.” Sterling continued. “In the 2012 case, Fasen’s company Fasen Meat Trading BV and its accomplice Windmeijer Meat Trading BV sourced cheap horse meat from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, marked it up, and sold it on, in some cases certified as being halal beef slaughtered according to Muslim dietary laws. Fasen was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in the scam, which took place over two years in 2007-2009. In December 2008,” Sterling added, “Fasen dissolved Fasen Meat Trading. The same year he founded Draap Trading, registering it in Limassol, Cyprus.”
The Guardian reported that Fasen admitted selling horse meat to the French firm Spanghero, but denied mislabeling it. French consumer affairs minister Benoit Hamon identified Spanghero as the first “agent” to have marketed the horsemeat in the current investigation as beef. “The French authorities found that Spanghero had profited to the tune of more than $660,000 over six months by marketing the cheap horsemeat as much more expensive beef,” the Guardian said.
Transborder traffic in live horses for slaughter within the European Union has fallen by about 100,000 since 2001, but net horse consumption appears to have increased.
“The number of horses exported for meat from Canada and Mexico, where most U.S. horses go for slaughter, jumped to over 160,000 in 2012,” said Jo Swabe, the Humane Society International representative in Brussels.
“The more people have looked for horsemeat, the more products have been found containing it,” senior British food inspector Duncan Campbell told Jill Lawless of Associated Press. “I don’t think we have got to the bottom of it yet.”