DEN HAAG, The Netherlands––The April 24, 2015 coordinated arrests of 26 traffickers in seven European nations who allegedly sold horse meat as beef underscored the reality that horse meat as such is no longer a high-end commodity.
Eight years after the USDA by Congressional directive quit inspecting the last three U.S. horse slaughterhouses, obliging them to close in mid-2007, horse breeders, the horse racing industry, and ranchers eager to rid leased public grazing land of wild horses cling to hopes of reviving horse slaughter for human consumption.
Circa 140,000 horses were exported from the U.S. to slaughter in Mexico and Canada in 2014, about 20,000 fewer than in 2012. The continuing slaughter export trade inspired the April 22, 2015 reintroduction of the Safeguard American Food Exports Act to Congress by Representatives Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.). The act, which has failed in several previous introductions, is meant to end the horse slaughter export traffic.
Consumer demand for horse meat has disappeared
But the European consumer demand that once drove the export trade no longer exists––and neither does the domestic demand for horse meat as dog food that once set the floor price at slaughter auctions.
Only four of the 28 European Union nations, according to Eurostat, now knowingly consume even as much as a pound of horsemeat per person per year––Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, all at just over two pounds, and Luxembourg, at about 1.3 pounds. France, once in the same bracket, now consumes half as much as Luxembourg, but remains in fifth place. Just four other EU member nations consume any discernable amount of horsemeat.
More than two years of scandals over horse meat contaminating European processed food products have occurred because horse meat can now profitably be substituted for even the cheapest grades of ground beef.
Announced by the European Union judicial agency Eurojust, the April 24, 2015 arrests netted at least four Belgian suspects in France, three suspects in the Netherlands, and others in Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom.
Alison Healy of The Irish Times reported from Dublin on April 26, 2015 that the Irish national police force Gardaí and the Irish Department of Agriculture said their investigation was “ongoing,” hinting that additional arrests may be forthcoming.
Horses may have been drugged
Said Agence France-Presse, “The animals involved were used for recreation as well as for racing, meaning they could have been injected with drugs including antibiotics, according to Belgian public television provider RTBF. Abattoirs in the south of France were used, French and Belgian sources said. Veterinary services were examining over 200 horses recovered during the police raids.”
About 4,700 horses who were deemed unfit for human consumption were slaughtered in France between 2010 and 2013 and illegally butchered for use in meat products, Eurojust indicated.
The alleged ringleader, operating out of Belgium, had reportedly been under investigation since November 2012.
Dealer gets 30 months in prison
The April 24, 2015 raids followed the April 7, 2015 sentencing of Dutch meat wholesaler Willy Selten to 30 months in prison for selling 300 metric tons of horse meat as beef in 2013.
“’As boss of two companies Selten was guilty of forging invoices, labels and written declarations and using these forged documents to trade meat,’” the court in Den Bosch said in its judgment,” wrote Charles Onians of Agence France-Presse. “Of 167 samples taken by Dutch authorities from Selten’s meat supplies in February 2013, 35 tested positive for horse DNA, the court said. Selten’s businesses are now bankrupt and the administrator has laid a claim of 11 million euros ($12 million) against him, the court said.”
28 companies in 13 nations plus Hong Kong
Altogether, at least 28 companies in 13 European nations plus Hong Kong were 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.
The investigation revealed that while a dwindling few Europeans still eat horse meat by preference, 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 still unraveling horsemeat-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.
Burger King toward the end of January 2013 acknowledged that horse meat had been found in some of the million burgers per week that it sells through 500 U.K. franchises. The source of the contaminated Burger King products turned out to be meat purchased from a company called Silvercrest Foods.
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 horse meat 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 horse meat, 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.
Race horse slaughterhouse
Despite the fingers pointed toward the European continent, the first three reported arrests for alleged fraud in connection with selling horse meat as beef came in February 2013 in Wales and Yorkshire. 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. “The firm, owned by Peter Boddy, was closed 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 the 2012 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.
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-inflammatory 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 horse meat is thought to have left abattoirs in May and October, but the positive results did not arrive at the FSA until February 2013. 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 (ProMED-Mail).
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-Mail 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 horse meat or horse meat 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 horse meat 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 horse meat as much more expensive beef,” The Guardian said.