Five Reasons Why Tesco’s Horse Meat Scandal Could Happen Here
Vickery Eckhoff / Forbes / January 30, 2013
Photograph by Keith Myers of the Kansas City Star for its feature, “Beef’s Raw Edges,” showing what goes into ground beef at a plant in Dodge City, Kansas.
While everyone is making jokes about the Polish horse meat that contaminated Tesco’s ground beef patties in the UK, lawmakers in Oklahoma and other western states are busy introducing bills to open horse slaughter plants for human consumption here in the U.S.
Below are five reasons why the Tesco scandal could play out in rural America in the very near future if they succeed—and why food safety issues with contaminated horse meat are a far bigger threat to consumers than the industry is admitting.
Reason #1: What’s in that burger and where is it from? The fact that horse meat from Poland ended up in ground beef in Ireland isn’t so far-fetched when you understand how the industry operates. At least here in the U.S., your average burger is a big mash-up of edible scraps and parts from different cows from different plants, often from different states (and even countries), with fat and additives ground in.Dr. Lester Castro Friedlander, DVM, used to see “big tubs of beef from different plants ground together” at plants were he was a USDA inspector and also a top inspection trainer. “This makes it difficult to trace liability to any particular plant in the case of e-coli contamination,” says Dr. Friedlander.
As part of a year-long investigation , The Kansas City Star went inside four of America’s largest packing plants (Cargill, JBS, Tyson and National Beef), photographing a plant in Dodge City where tubs of scraps and cuts waited to be ground into burgers, just like the ones Dr. Friedlander talked about. The practice was also exposed in a 2009 New York Times article, “The Burger That Shattered Her Life.”
E-coli contamination is a high risk as both the
Starand New York Times articles reveal. And as the Tesco situation shows, it’s not just disparate parts of different cattle from different plants and countries that find their way into burger meat, but pork and horse meat as well, all crossing borders (and datelines) and sold to unwary customers without proper labeling.
Reason #2: Oklahoma wants to cash in on slaughtering racehorses, mustangs and other equines not raised as meat animals.
Rural U.S. lawmakers with ties to the cattle industry and economically-strapped horse breeding registries have been pushing to reopen horse slaughter plants in the states since the last three plants shut down in 2007 (two in Texas, one in Illinois).
Over the past 12 months, they’ve tried unsuccessfully to overturn Texas’ state slaughter ban and pass pro-slaughter legislation in Tennessee. They’ve also tried (and failed so far) to open plants in New Mexico, Oregon and Missouri.
This coming Tuesday (February 5), lawmakers are poised to try again in Oklahoma when a new bill, SB375, is scheduled for a second reading in the state’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
What’s behind it are the 140,000-150,000 U.S. horses that are now being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico for markets overseas plus about 45,000 mustangs unwisely removed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from public lands and warehoused at taxpayer expense to make more room for cattle grazing. This is a wasteful program but “welfare cattle grazing,” the reason most commonly blamed for the removals, is even more wasteful of taxpayer dollars.
These horses, many held in long-term holding pens in Oklahoma, are considered “excess” by the BLM and there are quite a few people in the meat trade who’d happily buy them cheap and sell them at a large profit to slaughter plants (in fact, they’ve been doing this illegally for some time, as revealed in the
National Journal article, “Is the U.S. Government Complicit in the Killing of Over 1,000 Wild Horses?” as well as in an investigation reported on in The Desert Independent).
They also want to slaughter horses disposed of by racetracks, rodeos, horse breeders and owners struggling in the recession—a sizeable surplus market that has made the actual raising of horses as meat animals (similar to cattle) completely unnecessary in the U.S. for decades.
Oklahoma Senator Mark Allen is trying to harness that business for his home state, which ranks fourth in the nation in horse ownership per capita. His bill (SB375) would overturn Oklahoma’s existing 1963 ban on selling and producing horsemeat—a somewhat dodgy maneuver, given Oklahoma’s present billing as the “horse show capital of the U.S.”
The state also happens to have several struggling racetracks as well as a large cattle industry. Ignoring the branding problem of slaughtering horses in “the horse show capital of the U.S,” there are huge food-safety problems connected to slaughtering horses that have been ignored for years and that the Tesco and Burger King debacles are slowly bringing to light.
Reason #3: “Burger King’s ‘cover-up’ over horse meat scandal: As chain dumps millions of ‘unaffected’ patties, Labour warns of cancer-causing drug found in UK abattoirs”
That’s a Jan. 28
, and there are many others just like it popping up all over the media. Daily Mail headline
What they reveal about dangerous drugs turning up in horse meat isn’t just specific to the UK, though; it’s relevant here—especially since U.S. horses are more medicated than anywhere in the world with drugs banned in food animals by the FDA. Even one-time use of most of them is illegal in any animal slaughtered for human consumption.
The focus of the
Daily Mail article is phenylbutazone (bute), a known human carcinogen. It also happens to be the most widely administered equine pain reliever in the U.S. as well as abroad—one that can cause aplastic anemia in humans, even in minute amounts according to two scientific articles, including one published in the that states, “Phenylbutazone (bute) is arguably the most potent and effective pain relieving agent available in equine medicine in this country. The difficulty with phenylbutazone is that it, or its metabolite, can cause aplastic anaemia in children. If a child were to consume an animal-based product containing even the minutest amount of bute or its metabolite then the child may develop aplastic anemia.” Veterinary Ireland Journal
Another article on the public health hazards posed by bute in horse meat published in
Food and Chemical Toxicology is equally foreboding. Still, people who’ve eaten both horse meat and beef are fond of saying they’re both equally safe and that there’s no difference between eating one or the other. Why eat Elsie the cow and not Mr. Ed?
This is where a knowledge of veterinary science, slaughter and the testing process—and not simply a passing familiarity with talking animals on TV or served-up as entrées at Applebee’s—is indispensible.
Just because you can’t taste contaminants doesn’t mean they aren’t present. They are. Testing shows it—and since more than 90% of Americans report giving their horses bute, and the USDA has no working system for tracking its use, the only way to keep it out of U.S. horse meat is to raise horses for food the way cattle are.
But that’s really expensive—way more expensive than raising cattle, actually. Remember, that it’s surplus horses that bills like Oklahoma Senator Mark Allen’s would send to slaughter in the U.S. Because they’re cheap and available.
TO READ THE REST OF THIS AND OTHER ARTICLES BY VICKERY ECKHOFF, CLICK HERE
For more on this topic, follow Vickery on Twitter or read these Forbes.com related posts:
Habitat for Horses is a 501.c.3 nonprofit equine protection organization supported solely by donations. We have around 200 donkeys and horses under our care, plus one ornery, old mule. Most of them are here because law enforcement removed them from their previous owner. Our ability to rehabilitate and rehome them comes from the financial support of people like you. Please support us by making a donation for the horses we all serve. Click HERE to donate