COMMENT: Consumers know little about the international horsemeat trade, and regulators pay little attention to it
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s investigation raises questions about a food business that lies largely under the radar of consumers: the horse-meat trade. Food ingredients and their sourcing form a complicated web of transactions, and the longer the supply chain, the greater the chance of error.
Irish farmers have to ensure the traceability of their cattle, but overseas suppliers are often not subject to the same safeguards, especially when it comes to low-grade animal protein.
More than 200,000 horses are slaughtered in Europe yearly. Horse meat is a versatile product, sold as premium horse steak, horse salami and an ingredient in convenience foods and snacks sold in European supermarkets. It has a role in food processing and could be present in bulking agents or beef-protein powders in ready meals, possibly without being labelled.
In the authority’s tests for horse DNA in 27 Irish supermarket burgers, the product with the highest level (29 per cent) of equine DNA was Tesco Everyday Value burgers. These contain 17 ingredients: meat content (63 per cent), onion (10 per cent),wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract. One of these ingredients contained horse DNA via what is now identified as a supply chain in the Netherlands or Spain.
In Ireland we’re slaughtering horses in increasing numbers since the boom years. Seven thousand horses went to licensed abattoirs in 2010. This rose to 12,575 the following year. Irish horse meat is exported to Italy, France and Germany, but we also ship horses live to meat plants in Poland, France and Spain. Horses leave through Irish ports, and though many are destined for the food chain they are not tagged or identified in the way that cattle and sheep are.
Under EU law, horses are accepted into meat plants only with “clean” passports, in other words having had no prohibited medications, such as phenylbutazone, or bute, a commonly used anti-inflammatory. Bute was used in human medicine in the 1950s, but it was taken off the market as blood disorders such as anaemia and leukemia were among its side effects.
In a Veterinary Ireland report, unnamed dealers admitted they apply for new passports to get around the banned-substance regulations; where horses are shipped abroad over long distances, identity swapping occurs. Organisations such as the Irish Horse Welfare Trust say the horse trade is inhumane, poorly tracked and bad for human health.
Europe also imports horse meat from plants in Canada, Mexico and South America. As horse slaughter is not allowed in the US, about 100,000 horses yearly travel thousands of kilometres to meat plants in Mexico and Canada, where they are killed for European consumers. Several nongovernmental organisations, including the American Humane Society, have unpleasant evidence of what takes place during transport and slaughter at these factories.
The lack of traceability in the live trade of horses poses risks to the food chain. Nothing like the safeguards demanded of our beef trade exist for an animal that is also for human consumption. Last October, European food-safety officials notified Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses that meat from US racehorses might be too toxic for European consumers. The US racing industry, which contributes to the numbers of horses killed in Canada and Mexico, is notoriously dependent on drugs.
An EU report examining the killing and export of US horses from Mexican slaughter plants found: “The systems in place for identification and food-chain information are insufficient to guarantee that standards equivalent to those provided for by EU legislation are applied.”
In May and October of last year the EU suspended the importation of horse meat from Canadian and Mexican plants. It has since resumed.
It is clear from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s investigations here that horse meat is more widespread in our food chain than we thought. If we could identify its origin, we might decide it’s neither desirable nor safe to eat.