Horse meat in food stirs a furor in Britain and Ireland

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LONDON -- Few things divide British eating habits from those of Continental Europe as clearly as a distaste for consuming horse meat, so news that many Britons have unknowingly done so has prompted alarm among shoppers and plunged the country's food industry into crisis.

A trickle of discoveries of horse meat in hamburgers, starting in Ireland last month, has turned into a steady stream of revelations, including, on Friday, that lasagna labeled beef from one international distributor of frozen food, Findus, contained in some cases 100 percent horse meat.

The widening scandal has touched producers and potentially millions of consumers in at least five countries -- Ireland, Britain, Poland, France and Sweden -- and raised questions of food safety and oversight, as well as the possibility of outright fraud in an industry with a history of grave, if episodic, lapses despite similarly episodic efforts at stricter regulation and reform. Already, tens of millions of hamburgers from several suppliers have been recalled.

The growing scale of the problem became clear this week, when the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Alan Reilly, said meat was being deliberately mislabeled. "We are no longer talking about trace amounts," he told RTE, the national broadcaster. "We are talking about horse meat. Somebody, someplace is drip-feeding horse meat into the burger manufacturing industry. We don't know exactly where this is happening."

On Friday, he amplified concerns about the scope of the scandal. "It's not just confined, as we thought initially, to Ireland," he said. "This has spread to France, to Luxembourg, to the U.K.; Poland is involved and the Netherlands. So it really is a Europeanwide problem that we have."

Meat from horses is no more harmful than that from cattle, though there were some unsubstantiated fears that phenylbutazone, a veterinary drug, could find its way into the food chain. But at the very least, the mislabeling has called into question whether consumers can be assured of what is going into their food.

The labeling of horse meat as beef has breached one of the great culinary taboos of Britain and Ireland, two countries that pride themselves on their love of certain animals, particularly horses. The fact that the source of the meat appears to have been mainland Europe -- where consumption of horse meat is more common -- raised suspicions of fraud, because beef is more expensive than horse meat.

Though public health is not at issue, government oversight is, and the latest developments have echoes of earlier European food safety crises.

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