Everything you never wanted to know about the European horse meat scandal

In a crisis that seems to grow by the hour, a breakdown of who's involved and what's at stake

Published February 19, 2013 5:46PM (EST)

It started when Ireland's food safety authority discovered that horse meat accounted for nearly 30 to 100 percent of the meat content of hamburgers being sold by major supermarket chains, but in less than a month, the scandal spread as horse meat -- and, in some cases, a powerful equine drug -- was found in beef products in Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Today, there are nearly a dozen countries pulling products believed to be adulterated with horse DNA from their shelves, sparking a flurry of attention to a continent-wide crisis over international supply chains and a lack of transparency in food manufacturing standards.

Where did the horse meat even come from? 

Good question, but it's a hard one to answer. Food supply chains are incredibly complex, so European authorities are scrambling to trace multiple sources. The number seems to grow by the day.

When the scandal first broke, Irish food safety authorities identified three factories as the source of beef products that had been contaminated with horse meat: Silvercrest Foods and Liffey Meats in Ireland and Dalepak in Yorkshire. Silvercrest and Dalepak are both subsidiaries of something called ABP Food Group, which is one of the largest beef processors in all of Europe.

ABP has denied responsibility and blamed suppliers in the Netherlands, Spain and Poland for the contaminated meat, but authorities are still trying to confirm what came from where.

In France, horse meat-adulterated beef products have been traced to Comigel, a French supplier, and a Dutch supplier, Draap (which, by the way, spelled backwards is paard or Dutch for "horse"). The meat may have originated from as far away as Romania.

As recently as Thursday, Nestlé said that it had increased product testing after the horse meat scandal and admitted to finding “traces” of horse DNA in two beef products supplied by a German company named as H.J. Schypke.

According to a statement from the company, the levels were above the 1 percent threshold used by the British Food Standards Agency and were pulled from the shelves.

But the investigation continues. And, day by day, the international food web grows ever more complicated.

So why did this happen? 

As you can probably tell, supply chains for major processors and supermarkets across Europe can be shockingly complex and stretch across countries. Because cost is often (or always) the bottom line, these companies tend to source their ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest. The product (in this case, horse meat) is then move through a network of brokers, storage facilities, processing plants and cutting facilities where oversight and documentation is lax, if it exists at all.

After all that, supermarkets and local companies hungry to keep cheap product on the shelves buy the low cost meat without asking too many questions.

The rest is horse meat history.

Is this an issue of mislabeling or food safety? 

The problem of horse meat disguised as beef was originally believed to be one of transparency in food labeling practices.

That is, until the British government found phenylbutazone -- a powerful horse painkiller -- in some of the contaminated food they tested.

And what again about equine painkillers? 

Food authorities found that eight horses slaughtered for food in Britain tested positive for the drug, and six of them had already been exported to France for use in human food.

Especially large doses (enough to "kill a horse," as they say) can cause a fatal blood disorder called aplastic anemia that prevents bone marrow from producing enough blood cells.

The investigation into the equine drug contamination is ongoing.

What's next? 

Environmental and health ministers across Europe are looking to do damage control, promising to bump up regulation of horse meat the travels across country lines and the food labeling oversights that let this happen in the first place.

According to the Financial Times, a commission has been formed to ask Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, to coordinate information among member states and investigate any criminal conduct.

“The question is who did what, where and when?” Tonio Borg, the health commissioner, told the Times. “And I am confident we will get to the bottom of this.”

Can I ever look at a cheeseburger the same way again? 

No, you probably cannot.



By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Food Safety Health Horse Meat International Manufacturing Public Health