IKEA’s famous Swedish meatballs were the latest casualty in the European horse meat scandal, with the company pulling them off the shelves in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. The discovery of horse meat in products labeled as containing pure beef has resulted in recalls in Europe. The U.S. has, thus far, remained unaffected, but the looming sequester cuts could put inspections at risk.
Over the past two weeks, the horse meat scandal has broadened. It began with the discovery of horse meat in frozen lasagna labeled as 100 percent beef being sold in British supermarkets. Companies including Nestle, Bird’s Eye and Burger King were drawn into the scandal as traces of horse meat were found in prepared foods. So far, 16 countries have been affected. The amount of horse meat in food has been substantial, with tests on random samples in Britain showing horse meat content between 30 and 100 percent.
It’s unclear where in the supply chain the horse meat originated. Manufacturers have blamed suppliers for providing beef that included horse meat. Suppliers of the beef have, in turn, pointed the finger at sub-suppliers.
Many countries in Europe eat horse meat — the outrage over the contaminated products has to do with deceptive labeling and concern for possible health effects. Some have reacted differently. In fact, the public reaction in Canada has led to anincrease in horse meat consumption in that country as curious foodies seek out the experience of eating horse meat.
For others, though, concerns remain over the health risks of the beef products found to contain horse meat. The main concern is the drug phenylbutazone, known as bute, which is an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat horses. Bute is banned in food, and the products labeled as beef have not been tested for it. However, U.K. officials have said there is no indication of a significant safety risk to consumers who may have eaten horse meat.
So far, the U.S. has remained isolated from the horse meat scandal. But could it happen here?
Tests for horse meat are rare, and officials have privately admitted that species testing of imports isn’t routinely performed. Shipments are tested only if there is reason to believe they may be questionable. Only one company supplies a validated test for horse meat, and the Florida-based business has been slammed with requests for the tests from clients that include major U.S. meat suppliers.
For those feeling wary about the state of meat inspection in the U.S., the looming sequester cuts are another reason to be concerned. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will face $2 billion in cuts if Congress doesn’t avert the sequester, and some of the cuts will hit those responsible for inspecting food. The cuts could be painful for a system that inspectors say is already stretched thin and facing pressure from corporate influences. The USDA may furlough food inspectors, leaving companies unable to process products and stalling imports and exports, diminishing the supply and driving up prices on meat and poultry.
But it’s not likely that horse meat will be a concern in the U.S. So far no products have been pulled from U.S. shelves, even from companies whose products were affected in other countries, because U.S. beef-based products are from a separate supply chain. The U.S. currently bans the import of E.U. beef due to concerns over bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease. The USDA has recommended the 15-year ban be lifted, but unless and until that happens, there’s little concern over contaminated beef being imported from Europe.
There’s an even smaller chance that horse meat would find its way into the beef in our stores and restaurants from suppliers within the U.S. The U.S. has cultural taboos against eating horse meat, and the slaughter of horses for human consumption was banned in the U.S. in 2007 when Congress refused to fund inspections of those slaughterhouses. MORE….