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Horse Meat and Dodgy Seafood

February 21, 2013

Many Europeans were dismayed to find out they have been eating horse meat (but not from this one, fortunately). Credit: Jerry Sintz/BLM

By Mark Spalding, senior scientist, The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team

A strange scandal is sweeping across Europe at the moment.

We’ve all been unwittingly eating horse meat, thinking it was beef.

This is not the delicious foal steak that can be bought in the best restaurants of Northern Italy; this is minced offal of unknown provenance sold as beef and packaged into the cheapest burgers and pre-cooked meals.

It’s a big story.

Chances are that many of us here in Europe have, at one time or another, tucked in to a little bit of some old nag or young filly. I’m not as upset about it as others. I think it’s pretty likely that most of these horses were simply surplus free-range animals.

Perhaps we should even prefer to eat them over the poor creatures reared indoors or in feed-lots, tight-packed and hormone-pumped, with no access to grass.

A similar scandal has been bubbling over with fish:  studies have drawn attention to mislabelling across Europe, South Africa, and Australia, but most especially the United States, where it seems that most of what you buy is not what it claims to be.

In a recent Californian study every single fish sold as “snapper” wasn’t, and 9 out of 10 sushi samples were mislabeled.

This should upset us even more than horse meat, especially when you learn, for example, that escolar (a fish that can cause severe food poisoning if eaten in larger portions) is widely sold as white tuna in sushi restaurants, and regularly turns up as cod, grouper and sea bass elsewhere.

It’s a problem in Europe too. One study in Ireland showed that 84 percent of smoked fish wasn’t what the label or supermarket claimed.

Ethically minded consumers need to beware too. Here in the UK cod-labeling was generally not too bad, but there were a few cases of the more threatened Atlantic cod being sold as “sustainably sourced” Pacific cod.

In the long-run good may still come from these stories, because they stop us in our tracks.

Of course many horse-lovers may find themselves choking over their lasagna, but perhaps they’ll be more interested in what they eat next time.

Personally I’m just going to avoid all fish in the United States unless I’m quite convinced I could trace it right back to the fisher, or find fish with a reliable third party certification.

These sorts of scandals might well also tip a new crowd over towards vegetarianism, or at least eating less meat and fish, and that will have huge environmental benefits. If you’re a farmer or a fisher reading this you should be angry of course. And we should all be demanding change.

Dodgy food shouldn’t come as a surprise:  it’s a classic market response to disinterested purchasers and loose legal regimes.

We live in a complex world where almost any food can be bought, at any time of year. In a single pre-cooked meal, a stew of continents and seasons may be blended and blurred to such a degree that it would take a full PhD study to try and trace its origins. So it’s pretty easy to break in and disrupt the chain of decent supply.

This wealth of sources, however, is a luxury that should come with a responsibility and these scandals help to raise our concerns. I’m not over-optimistic of course. In a few months we’ll all revert to type, and consumers will push back towards scouring the shelves for the cheapest food and never reading the labels.

We environmentalists should see these moments of public outrage as moments of opportunity, a chance to move fast to shift the needle.

They may lead to collapse of the worst offending providers, the scaling up of use of certification schemes, and the installation of legal requirements to reduce the worst excesses.

If environmentalists seize the day, they can create changes that will hold even when the huge juggernaut of public consumption starts to drift back to its old indifference.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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  1. One of the most delicious meals I have eaten was raw horse meat (Horse Sashimi presumably?). In Switzerland it’s a mainstream dish almost akin to a good steak.

    Forget us humans though… it’s the poor poor pets in Europe we should feel sorry for: they don’t get a look in on decent meat, usually stuck with discarded udders and ears of cattle if they are lucky. Now in England and America, on the other hand, pets get to gorge themselves on delicious liver, kidneys and much more… while we are stuck with the occasional bit of horse burger – without even realising it.

  2. In Europe, it turns out that the Mafia are behind a lot of the off-species masquerading as beef. I’m curious .. this mislabeling of fish is so wide spread that there seems to be, well, .. something other than a wide spread accident. And it is wide spread enough that we know it is not something that started just day before yesterday. Check:

    The Alternet article says something which also applies to the U.S. and to fish, i think: “A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders ‘just in time.’ Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.”

    I happen to believe strongly in the “truth” part of ‘truth in labeling’. I personally don’t care what they sell,(welll… poisons and similar things excepted) as long as it is labeled accurately.

    So “beef and horse blend” works. On the other hand, an “all beef” label when it is actually beef/horse blend — throw them in jail. Make large corporations responsible in a strong enough way that they will support a strong FDA.

  3. Gulf fishermen solved this age old problem. Check out Makes sense that fishermen would be the ones who care enough to make sure what they are catching is what is getting sold/enjoyed!

  4. Your bias is obvious when you said, “I think it’s pretty likely that most of these horses were simply surplus free-range animals.” There is no Such Thing as Surplus when it comes to free range, These Free range horses are not in surplus but are being stolen from the American people even though there is a law to protect them from this.

    My sister started eating one of those burgers in Barcelona and knew right away it was not beef. — She is also Allergic to horse. Before too long, the so called surplus free range horses of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington will be completely Zeroed out, it is in the plans. The other states will only have token non-or minimally reproducing herds under state or private management. My father in-law remembers when 20,000 wild horses free roamed in Wyoming. He said even then during his hunting and fishing he hardly ever saw them. The propaganda, hyperbole, myths, against these wonderful wild life is unbelievable, so why do so many fall for it to the horse peril? (signed .. one that has enjoyed the wild horses for over 50 years)

  5. Just a note about the picture. This is a stallion releasing and taking in scent of females. There is a word for it but I can not find it at this time.

  6. I realize this is an old thread this comment from Mr. Spalding caught my attention.

    “I’m not as upset about it as others. I think it’s pretty likely that most of these horses were simply surplus free-range animals.”

    Apart from the lack of credible evidence of any verifiable “surplus” of federally protected wild horses, anyone reading this who performed even a cursory investigation would soon realize the vast majority of American horses sold into slaughter come from our racetracks. What this means and has been documented elsewhere is meat laced with any number of chemicals commonly used in horses (legally and otherwise) and which are clearly labeled as not intended for use in animals used for food for others. These are not tested for nor is there any lifetime record which follows horses into the slaughter pipeline. Many of these compounds are known carcinogens in humans, which is part of why labeling is problematic.

    There are many disturbing characteristics of the horse slaughter industry but even if you care nothing for the horses, you might consider your own health and that of those who share your table.

    Bon appetit!