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Horsemeat scandal: four key questions

17 February 2013

The ongoing horsemeat scandal has opened up a hugely complicated web stretching across the EU, highlighting the difficulty of tracing the origins of the meat on sale in this country. Even now, almost a month after it was announced that horse could be in beef products, no one is entirely sure of how the horses entered the food chain. There are other big questions, too: here are four that need answers:

•       The matter of dodgy horse passports – which I wrote about last month – is something that still hasn’t been fully investigated. It has now emerged that up to 7,000 unauthorised passports have been in circulation in the UK since 2008, highlighting the chaotic state of the passport system. (The story of Charlie the ‘ghost’ cob, who according to official documents was slaughtered in 2012, but who was in fact discovered wandering the streets in Ireland, shows just one example of the problems with the current system).

•       It might well be true that a human would have to eat 500 burgers to receive an equivalent human dose of bute. But bute isn’t the only drug that these horses could have been treated with. Magnesium-based horse calmers have become very popular in recent years, an excess of which could also cause problems in humans, including low blood pressure. Plus, details of these wouldn’t appear on a horse’s passport, meaning that the animal could theoretically still enter the food chain.

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•       How has this taken so long to discover?  If this is indeed an ‘international criminal conspiracy’, (© Owen Paterson), then there must have been hundreds – if not thousands – of people ‘in’ on the fraud. A number of British abattoirs have now been found to have supplied horse meat which has ended up in the food chain one way or another.

•       Are the horses even from Europe? So far the story has focused on Europe as a source of the rogue meat. But if, as James Forsyth writes in his politics column, it turns out to be true that some of the horsemeat in supermarket mince has its origins in the US, then there’s a far greater risk of these horses being drugged that their European counterparts, since the US drug rules are far more lax than those on this side of the pond.

Even if, as the FSA would like us to believe, the horsemeat in the food chain is perfectly edible, it seems unlikely that supermarkets will be able to get away without any repercussions from their customers. Perhaps Rod Liddle has got a point when he says that customers will soon be asking for compensation for having been sold mislabelled products. For the moment though, that’s probably the least of their worries.

In the meantime however, if you do fancy an (edible) spot of horse, then steer clear of the Findus lasagne or Beefeater burger, and take some tips from Bruce Anderson, who’s a big fan of saucisson de cheval.

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Show comments
  • Olaf

    Processed food sales down, local butcher sales up 40%. Every cloud and all that..

  • John McClane

    A relative of mine, who worked at the Co-Op, said they regularly took mince that had gone grey off the shelves, reminced it to make it look red again and then put it back on the shelves.

  • Davey12

    Actually, it has been a lot of fun.

    Here we go again, Everyone who knows nowt about this having a pop and everyone has the solution. The fact is it has been going on for so long is because it is safe. If horse meat was dangerous we would have seen the effects and it would have stopped earlier.

    Because it is hard to tell the difference between horse meat and beef and because we never tested for it, means these fraudsters could get away with it. Now testing will be implemented. Only need a random sample which means cheats will be found very quickly which means you are unlikely to get away with it. So the fraudsters will move on. It is not that big a deal. Sadly we have stupid news programs were every news reporter wants to be the next Paxman.

    To give you an idea of the stupidity the Waitrose chief exec is putting his penny worth in. The man who runs the most expensive supermarket in the country thinks we should pay more. Yet MacDonalds that supplies cheap food somehow prevented horse meat getting into there burgers. Seems the cheap food supplier trumped the most expensive grocer in the country and he now wants us to spend more money.

    The system works but like all systems things will happen. It will always need tweaking because humans are smart and some humans will cheat.

    • HooksLaw

      If so its quite ironic that McDs are ‘free from’. I have never been one to knock them.

    • telemachus

      Do not forget that the increasing disadvantaged poor of our society need sources of cheap meat to feed their ill clad children

  • sir_graphus

    Blimey. all that worrying I did about BSE, and it turns out I was eating horse all along.

    • Jupiter

      Can horses get BSE?

    • telemachus

      The Food Standards Agency’s powers need to be strengthened to avoid a repeat of the horsemeat scandal. We all know that the FSA’s inability to either pre-empt the problem, or to get a grip on it when it happened, is due to Tory cuts in 2010. These left the agency hopelessly weakened.
      Remember Gummer and BSE.

      • James Strong

        This is so far wrong as to be bordering on insane.
        We all know that the truth is that there was *no criminal fraud at all* until the 2010 election because abattoirs throughout Europe were basking in the delight of a Labour Government in the UK.
        Just as John Betjeman could state that sexual intercourse began in 1963 we can say that all bad things we are faced with now started in 2010, specifically on the day the Queen invited Cameron to form a government.

      • Colonel Mustard

        “We all know” as in “We all here in the Labour propaganda unit would like that to become the perception and will peddle the lie as often as we can.”

        Now we see Labour and its activists coming out of the woodwork everywhere to make this a party political issue as you have done. You are just part of the Labour conspiracy to undermine the democratic will of the people and bring this government down because you don’t like it or agree with its policies. People like you believe Labour has a right to rule regardless of election results and will do anything to achieve that. When you lose an election it is “wrong” and you start agitating, dissembling, undermining and lying from day one to discredit the government.

  • HooksLaw

    Its not rocket science or expensive to random test products on supermarket shelves, and of all the dubious products that might be considered worthwhile testing I would have thought burgers and sausages and mince would be top of the list.

    Incompetence amongst CEOs and civil servants knows no bounds.

    • gladiolys

      Is it incompetence? Or is it deliberate dis-regard in pursuit of cost-cutting?

  • Russell

    The elephant in the room which not one newspaper or tv channel dare ask is……

    Not is elephant meat being used in beef, but……

    “why is only horse dna being tested for in beef?”
    What about Rat dna, or dog, cat etc?
    A much larger profit can be made by criminals substituting rat meat than horse meat into beef (or into chicken or into pork sausage)..

    • Fergus Pickering

      Nothing wrong with rat meat. Generations of public school boys grew up on rat meat.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      I don’t think the average Romanian, Pole, Irish or even Welsh breeder will bother overmuch with rat. Using the average yield from a 340k steer or heifer (R4L @70%) it would take at least 1200 rats using a generous 200g yield from an average 500g rat to replace 1 carcass. Boning out a rat will be very labour intensive so the odds are rat would not be a significant economic subsitute in horse or more traditional burgers.

      The only known large size high yield rats are thought to be those the genus MP or Journalist but they do, of course, contain a significant fat and drug content and so may be unfit for human consumption.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …but they’re stupid and easy to catch. Very little bait required, and they always fall for the same old traps.

        And they breed, well, like rats, so there’s always a steady supply.

  • Field Marshal

    The incompetent dissembling Government is attempting to wash its hands of this.
    Downing street was lambasting the supermarkets a couple of days ago until a few CEO’s went on the box to show just what they were doing.
    Now we hear that Defra’s Jim Paice was told about it 18 months ago and did sod all.
    Just when are the people going to take charge.
    Maybe they assume that the precious EU whose fault the cross border trade is anyway should do something.
    Dream on.

    • HooksLaw

      The government was not told about it 18 months ago. Someone wrote allegedly complaining about the horse passport system. presumably we were all safer from horsemeat before the existence of these passports?

      What ‘saves us’ is testing of products. The BBC ran a scare headline the other night on its news, but the gist of its report was that the amount of meat and risk to humans was infinitesimal.

      • ButcombeMan

        What “saves us” is not just testing, it is a high level of competence and integrity in our supermarkets. It is surely no coincidence that norrthern, privately owned, “Booths”, has not been affected, or that Morrisons has not been affected.

        Even the mighty Waitrose (in a buying agreement with Booths on some goods I understand) was very slightly affected. Pork in a meat ball product it should not have been in. Quite plain what that was caused by -look at the sourcing.

        The long and well known truth of the meat industry is that it is potentially one of the most corrupt in Britain, everyone involved with it over a long period, a generation or three, has known that, especially as supply lines lengthened.

        The mincer covers a multitude of sins. It always has. As a butchers boy I used to put boned out breast of lamb in our “pork” & “beef” sausages, 50 years ago.

        No use blaming the government. To police this (an EU competency anyway) would have taken thousands of inspectors and tests in a system, we cannot afford and which was not in place when the coalition came to power.

        Red-Ed sounding off, about what should be done and silly attempts at making political capital, is disgraceful conduct. Government of which he was a part, signed away the competency to the EU and allowed the current paper-trail system, which it was always obvious, would inevitably lead to more fraud.across Europe.

        For the supermarkets and suppliers who got caught, the reputational damage that has followed has been largely optional. They made a choice, to risk it. Surpise from them at events, is either false or an expression of incompetence.

        Buyers, unless they are wet behind the ears youths, should have known about the possible corruption, it is their job TO know. They will probably in many cases have been on a bonus for the profitablity of their “lines”.

        Maybe it is no coincidence that the two non affected supermarket chains I mention, have largely avoided going down the selling everything hypermarket route that Tesco, Asda etc have done. Nor have they expanded widely overseas and lost milions.

        Vote with your feet.

        Eat less meat, eat better meat.

        If your supermarket tries to sell you anything much, but food, be suspicious.

        Go elsewhere if you can.

    • FrenchNewsonlin

      Government no longer has control over these matters. As Christopher Booker notes in his latest piece: the EU took over all “competence” to make food law from national governments a decade ago. The system, set up under EU regulation 178/2002, is administered by the European Food Safety Authority.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Wasn’t it 500 burgers a day? Even so, the ghastly Mary Creagh on QT managed to wail “What about the children?” and conflate eating a bit of horse meat with an anthrax attack. Surely the bulking of processed meat products has involved more than just horse meat? At least that was meat. I’ve heard tell of a deadly meat substitute made from grass that turns people into wet, bleating, lentil-eating Liberal Democrats.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I think the stuff we have to worry about is ‘mechanically recovered meat’. Never eat that stuff. Unfortunately we are not told if it is in other stuff. I regret to say the Tories wish to keep us in this blessed state of ignorance. Or so my wife tells me..

      • HooksLaw

        Are we to assume that everyone is terminally stupid?
        We are all free to choose what we buy based on our own compromises. The danger is always relying on somebody else, giving up our common sense to some bureaucracy or other. When all along there is the local butcher … or was.

        The public have no one to blame but themselves … ourselves … for taking an easy option.

        • Davidh

          Couldn’t agree more.

          People should take a bit more responsibility for themselves rather than relying on the state to spoon-feed them. If we care about what we feed ourselves and our families then we should buy food that actually looks like a natural substance and cook it.

  • Seasurfer1

    Cameron and his Merry Gang, along with the Media, will soon put 200,000 people out of work with their spouting of unfactual comments.

    • Russell

      More the ghastly Mary Creagh and her gang, along with the hopelessly inadequate Owen Paterson.

      • Span Ows

        To even put Owen Paterson’s name in the same sentence as mssss Creagh’s is an injustice to the man!…who seems to be the only politician talking any sense about the whole issue.

  • wobble

    So ..steps supposedly taken to prevent BSE from entering the human food chain is all a pile of bull.?…..

    Lessons to be learnt…. Eh?

    • Hexhamgeezer

      Or you could say those steps were fantastically effective as the 100,000s of deaths we were supposedly going to endure has hit approx 170 in 25 years.

      There may be an incredibly long gestation period for it but so far chicken little and his chums got it wrong.

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