800px-Hamburgers_-_San_MiguelYou’re probably aware that an English supermarket was recently found to be distributing hamburger that contained 29% horse meat.

Retailers in the UK and Ireland initially recalled approximately 10 million pounds of hamburger after three beef processors were discovered distributing hamburger patties containing both pig and horse DNA.

It was DNA testing as part of a quality assurance test that originally revealed the presence of horsemeat in beef products in mid-January.  As of today, nothing definitive has been proven regarding the scandal, but all of Europe’s health ministers are gathering in Brussels to talk about what should be done. As many as 16 EU countries have revealed that beef sold in those countries contains horsemeat.

There is no government-based DNA testing of meat here in the US (although the technology is available here and in use by private companies selling Black Angus beef).  And while it’s unlikely that any of our own beef contains horse, since there are currently no slaughter plants in the US, one has to wonder about the past.

As horsemen, we’ve likely all given our horses bute, at one time or another. Many of us have administered it more times than we can count.  That’s been the big lie within the bigger lie of “100% beef,” certainly abroad and likely here in the US as well.

Phenylbutazone was originally developed for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and gout in humans, but was withdrawn from human consumption decades ago, after it was found that one in 30,000 people given bute developed aplastic anemia, a fatal disease if untreated.

There are currently international checks to prevent phenylbutazone from entering the human food supply.  Nevertheless, the UK’s chief medical inspector, Dame Sally Davies, was recently quoted as saying “there is nothing to suggest a safety risk to consumers who may have eaten the products [contaminated with horse meat].”  Shades of the mad cow disease scandal and the equally botched attempts of UK officials to address the real issues as they attempt to reassure the public.  Will they ever learn?  

Interestingly, in September of 2010, bute was discovered in cattle samples from two different farms in Northern Ireland.  We eat plenty of cattle here in the US.  In fact, we kill 10 billion animals per year to consume as beef. And aside from selected Black Angus, we have no idea what we’re actually eating or how contaminated it is.

Let us not forget that in the US, deadly E. coli is not considered a contaminant — it is considered an adulterant.  But only in ground beef.  In whole cuts of beef, it’s perfectly okay.  Salmonella is also not an adulterant.  It’s okay, too. And all food recalls in the US are voluntary on the part of the manufacturer or distributer.

Lack of funding for USDA inspections, for whatever they might be worth, effectively eliminated the horse slaughter industry here in the US.  And although the spending cut for those inspections ended last September, no money has currently been allocated to facilitate them.  If and when it is, I bet it won’t include DNA testing.

The traceability of contaminants in our ground meat supply is considerably worse than it is in Europe.  It’s little comfort that the USDA’s Economic Research Service produced a document entitled Traceability in the U.S. Food Supply.  As it states in regards to the beef industry, “a system for tracking each and every input and process with a degree of precision for every objective would be virtually impossible.”  This statement of protest paves the way for a cost-benefit analysis.  No surprise there.  The words “market” and “marketing” appear three times in the “Factors Affecting Benefits.”  The word “consumer” appears nowhere.

As usual, if we want to understand how 100% beef became maybe some horse, we need to understand why.  It’s easy if you follow the money. According to Food Safety News, at current prices, 2.3 pounds of beef costs about $5.36, while 2.3 pounds of horsemeat costs just $1.21.  No wonder our horses are shipped to other countries to be killed.  Or why 10 times as many horses were slaughtered last year in Ireland as there were just five years ago. Or why almost twice as many horses were slaughtered in the UK as there were just three years ago.

Photograph by Andrew Butko

Photograph by Andrew Butko

There are more reasons than ever to fill your plate with plants.  And to think twice before you give your horse away to anyone.