hip-po-pha-gy /noun/ the practice of eating horseflesh.
From accusation and anger in European politics, international corporations and government, to the discussion and confrontation of a long standing taboo ingrained into British culture; chaos encapsulates the recent revelations regarding the sale of horse meat, labelled as beef, in the UK. In January, tests discovered traces of horse meat in burgers sold in the major supermarket, Tesco, as well as in other establishments including Burger King. The cascade of events that followed led to shocking statistics covering many other products, including levels of up to 100% horseflesh in Findus beef lasagna, the presence of pork in supposedly Halal foods and the removal of a range of products from shelves, such as Waitrose’s Essential British Frozen Beef Meatballs and Tesco Value Spaghetti Bolognese.
As the situation stands, there is not believed to be a public health risk, and the problem lies in the mislabeling of products, in the society of a first world country where transparency and regulation is believed to be the very highest. Horse meat, is however, a bit of a taboo topic, even though it is regularly eaten in a variety of other countries- France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, most of South America, Mexico, Quebec and China. In Japan you can even find horse sashimi, known as basashi. So what prevents the consumption of it in the UK? In the past, church rules banned eating horses probably because they were invaluable as assets of war, even though it became fairly popular to improve rations in WWII to eat horse meat, even in establishments such as Eton. Surprisingly around 8-10,000 horses are slaughtered for human consumption every year in the UK, but the main problem lies in the representation of horses in our culture, e.g in books, films, as pets and even in the Olympics. There is also no euphemistic word for horse meat to disguise it like pork or beef or McNugget.
Horse meat itself is cheaper, lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than sirloin steak or pork, twice as much iron and vitamin B12 as beef, and almost five times the amount of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) is eradicated also.
Due to the recent issues, more tests have been conducted, and current legislation control questioned, leading to the UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, who has already warned that thousands of tests conducted this week may find “there is a substance which is injurious to human health”. Growing scepticism of the processes regarding meat have led to suggestions of the presence of drugs in the food chain. Since 2005, European law has required all horses to have a passport, and those marked for human consumption have a limited number of medicines which can be administered. Worries have included that horses from Romania have been contaminated with equine anaemia, known as “horse Aids” even though it is not harmful to humans. Vets have also raised concerns that the drug known as ‘bute’ (phenylbutazone) may not have been checked for. Bute is a widely used, inexpensive, anti-inflammatory and painkiller medicine administered intravenously or orally. Bute is not a new problem. It has been found in horses that have been slaughtered for human consumption: 2-5% of samples in UK over last 5 years. Bute was used as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and gout in humans in the 1950s but was removed due to adverse health impacts, such as blood disorders, including aplastic anaemia, leukopenia, agranulocytosis and thrombocytopenia. Aplastic anaemia means the bone marrow stops making enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets for the body. People with severe or very severe aplastic anaemia are at risk for life-threatening infections or bleeding. Bute is additionally know to be a carcinogen in rats, but this is not confirmed in humans. Bute in meat intended for consumption could be intended or accidental, such as horses eating the wrong feed.
The early results from Findus UK’s internal investigation strongly suggests that the horse meat contamination in beef lasagne was not accidental, but whether the presence of horse meat is the result of criminal activity is still being investigated, with the government promising harsh punishments for those involved. A recent Defra statement stated: “Consumers have a right to expect that food is exactly what it says on the label. The Government and the FSA are working with authorities across Europe, including Police, to get to the bottom of this unacceptable situation. If criminal activity is discovered we will take whatever action is necessary.” Finding any perpetrators is going to be difficult though, with Hamon (from Findus) said a Luxembourg factory had been supplied by the French firm Poujol, which had bought the meat frozen from a Cypriot trader, who in turn sub-contracted the order to a Dutch trader supplied by a Romanian abattoir. As I write this, many UK abattoirs are being investigated too. Many animal rights activists have raised the issue of a difference in the care of animals for slaughter abroad too.
As this story develops, the outcome seems to become only hazier and more distant. Butchers in the meantime are enjoying a spike in sales, some are saying by as much as 20-30%, due to the lack of faith in supermarket meats. Whether the taboo on horse meat is at least partially removed remains to be seen, as does the width and depth of the issues at the heart of this scandal. Until then, any penalisation will be merely used as a threat.