War Horse (2011) - From the Somme to your frozen dinner.    

The recent scandal around horsemeat-infested products – labeled as 100% beef – sold in France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, prompted a frenzy of questions from the media, consumers, and governments about the supply chain practices and health standards of prominent companies in the food retailing and producing industry. The Economist reports that big names such as Tesco, Aldi, and Findus all inadvertently sold horse flesh, and in significant amounts as well. One sampling from Tesco products recorded that one of its burgers was comprised of 29% horsemeat, and Aldi’s Today’s Special Frozen Beef Lasagne and Today’s Special Frozen Spaghetti Bolognese were found to contain between 30% to 100% horsemeat. Governments have sent out a European Union-wide alert.

While consumers in countries like the United Kingdom are noted to react with dismay at the thought of eating their beloved Joeys and Black Beauties, properly prepared horsemeat is basically just another source of protein, more accepted in some cultures than others. However, as reported by CNN, eight out of 206 horse carcasses checked between January 30 and February 7 tested positive for the drug phenylbutazone (a painkiller also known as bute). Bute is not approved for human use in the United States, as some patients have experienced “severe toxic reactions”. This news certainly reflects a health concern, but its dangers should be kept in perspective. Calculating from the current levels of bute found in horse carcasses, an average human being would have to eat hundreds of bute-containing horsemeat burgers within a short period to experience a dose close to what the patients with negative side effects have received.

The plot thickens

The largest issue in this scandal, then, lies in the credibility of these notable food retailers and producers and the level of control over supply chains. Reuters describes how a British parliamentary report suggests that it was no accident those beef products contain horse flesh. At the moment, governments are becoming embroiled in what will appear to be a long and difficult investigation into the supply chain. Financial Times quotes Ireland’s minister for agriculture, Simon Coveney: “I suspect this is not just one rogue trader in one country…. I think there are a number of people who have been selling horsemeat as beef, so it’s taking some time to get to the bottom of it.” Harvey Morris from the New York Times discusses how a low-cost food culture and long and complex food supply chains may have enabled criminals to sneak horsemeat into the market and to reap illicit profits.

This is not the first time in 2013 that issues concerning exactly what consumers are putting on their dinner tables have come up. In January, pig DNA in beef products was discovered in the United Kingdom, which in particular raised the concerns of groups of people forbidden by religious dietary laws to eat pork.

Most media sources have pointed out that this is a matter of accountability. These wakeup calls highlight select supply chains with limited transparency and accountability, and the consequences that such gaps may bring to the public. Holistically speaking, companies like Tesco regard audits on suppliers as an important component in protecting their brands but, according to the Economist, with prices of raw materials increasing, frugal consumers are reluctant to pay more for ready-made meals. In turn, retailers are forced to apply pressure on suppliers to cut costs, which ultimately forces suppliers to seek creative avenues to save. For the time being, it looks like all parties – save for the yet-to-be-implicated horsemeat-selling profiteers – are trapped in a Catch-22 scenario.

[Update - police in the U.K. have arrested three men suspected of fraud.]
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Katherine Wang

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