The discovery of horse meat in products labeled as beef in the European Union has raised serious questions, not just about food labeling, but also about food safety and the working of the somewhat opaque, global horse meat industry.
While the authorities in Brussels and various E.U. member states continue their investigations related to the scandal, there are questions unrelated to accurate labeling that must now be asked of industry and government regulators.
The European Union has strict rules on what meat products should be allowed into its home markets. In the case of horse meat imports, it’s apparent that these products are held to a different standard — a porous and permissive standard — compared with other meat products destined for dinner plates and supermarket shelves.
For example, the E.U. forbids imports of American chicken because the carcasses are bathed in chlorine. The authorities also ban pork imports because American producers treat the animals with ractopamine, a feed additive to promote leanness. And as a general matter, it is forbidden to use certain veterinary medicines on any animals used for human consumption.
Despite these important food safety policies and standards, every year tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of animals are routinely given prohibited substances; racehorses, show horses and carriage horses regularly end up as meat intended for human consumption imported into the E.U.
Plants in Canada and Mexico slaughter horses from their own country, but the majority of the horses they kill come from the United States. Horse meat from these plants eventually makes its way to France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Contaminated horse meat imports from these North American countries can end up anywhere in Europe for further processing. In July 2012, residues of the drugs phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat pain and fever in animals) and clenbuterol (a drug that promotes leaner meat but that is banned in the United States and the E.U.) were found in a consignment of horse meat imported to Belgium from Canada.
European beef eaters are rightly appalled that they bought beef, but got horse meat instead. They should be even more concerned that some of that horse meat may also be contaminated and unfit for consumption.
There is no record-keeping mechanism for tracking the administration of drugs to racehorses. E.U. regulations stipulate that only meat from horses with a known medicinal treatment history (an equine passport) can be slaughtered for export to the E.U. But no North American horses have these passports. Yet last year approximately 160,000 American horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, with the meat going primarily to the E.U. and Japan.
More testing and analysis would help, but it is insufficient. Animals coming off of U.S. racetracks and out of pastures are injected with prohibited substances on a routine basis, and that alone makes this type of meat unsuitable for import. These animals were never bred or raised for the table, but for other purposes, and they should be disqualified from the meat trade.
It is also widely acknowledged that there is a high level of fraud involved with the equine identification documents. Recent audits conducted by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office in Canada and Mexico found that these countries are not in compliance with the E.U.’s food safety standards with regard to their medical records, even though non-E.U. parties have had two years to amend their residue control programs.
Experience has shown that those who tend to defraud the system designed to protect humans generally have even fewer qualms about the welfare of the animals they slaughter. The 160,000 U.S. horses slaughtered annually outside the United States are transported long distances in unsuitable vehicles. Conditions for horses elsewhere around the world are probably no better.
As the E.U. and the United States launch wide-ranging free-trade negotiations, now would be a good time to hit the reset button and make sure that E.U. food safety regulations are being honestly implemented. The global horse meat trade, by its very nature, cannot meet these standards. And now is a good time for the authorities in North America and Europe to eliminate trade in animals unsuitable for the dinner table.
Wayne Pacelle is president and chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States.