The hottest headline-generating food scandal of 2013 has been European beef products that actually contain significant amounts of horse meat. Every week since January, there seems to be a new supermarket, fast-food chain or processed food brand announcing they found horse meat in their beef products across Europe, even into Russia and some countries in Asia.
European consumers are outraged, for obvious reasons. Of course people expect that if they pay for beef, they should get beef, not meat from an entirely different animal. Many people are not comfortable eating horse meat (although it is consumed regularly in some parts of the world, including some European countries). And there are questions consumers should be asking about what else can go wrong in a system that is so weakly regulated and complex that someone can get away with passing off one type of animal as another.
To make matters worse, after the scandal broke, testing revealed that some horse meat sampled in Europe contained the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, often called Bute. The painkiller for horses is not allowed in the human food supply because of concerns that it could cause aplastic anemia. Drug residues are a serious concern across the meat supply, but are of particular concern for animals like horses, that are not specifically raised for food and may be treated with a long list of drugs throughout their lives. The concern is that some of those drugs remain in the meat if that horse makes it into the food supply, and whether eating those residues is safe for people.
The scandal is still raging in Europe, and governments have pledged to figure out what went wrong, where the fraud started, and to do testing to verify the identity of meat products. Hopefully Europeans’ newfound focus on the system that brings processed meat products to their plates will lead to some much-needed discussion about the risks posed by very complex supply chains that move products between multiple countries and processors.
As these systems get more complicated, and the products go through more processing steps, the opportunity for something to go wrong, in terms of safety breakdowns or opportunities for mix-ups and fraud, goes up too.
Time will tell if food safety regulators and the food industry can restore the confidence of consumers in Europe. But in the meantime, US consumers are left to wonder, could it happen here?
While I’ve learned never to say never when it comes to the food system, we do know that the United States is not producing horse meat. Congress stopped USDA inspections of horse slaughter plants in 2007, effectively shutting down the US horse-meat industry; controversial attempts to re-open some horse slaughterhouses are ongoing. And the United States is not importing meat from European countries where this scandal has occurred – but we do import meat from other countries.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn some lessons from this scandal in Europe.
The first is to make sure we maintain a strong system of government meat inspection. US Department of Agriculture inspectors in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants provide consumers with vital protection from food safety risks like E. coli and other foodborne pathogens, and their presence also cuts down on the chance that someone would try to commit the type of fraud that happened in Europe.
In addition to inspecting every carcass (and every bird, when it comes to poultry), we need to make sure we keep USDA inspectors stationed at the border, looking at imported products, and visiting meat plants in other countries to make sure their food safety systems are adequate. It is especially critical to tell our elected officials that food safety and meat inspection are government programs that are too important to cut.
Another lesson is that the source of the meat we buy does matter. While the sources of the food fraud in Europe are still being pinned down, consumers are justifiably demanding more information about where their food comes from so they can make their own decisions about what sources they trust.
Here in the United States, we could use a lot more information about the source of our food, too. Right now, we’re fighting to make sure labels actually tell consumers the most basic piece of information about meat – where it comes from. It seems pretty obvious that consumers have a right to know what country meat comes from, but the meat industry has been trying for years to weaken this labeling requirement or make it go away altogether. The USDA is actually taking public comments on how much you get to know about the origin of meat products, right now. You can tell them you want more information here.
So even if the headlines about consumers being fooled by fraudulent food aren’t local, it doesn’t mean US consumers shouldn’t pay attention. We need to make sure we enforce the rules and provide consumers with clear information to avoid our own food scandals here.