The first discoveries of horse DNA in U.K. "beef products" initially shocked consumers, the meat industry and the media. As the scandal spread from the U.K. to the E.U. and more and more disturbing revelations came to light, U.S. consumers wondered if they were next.
Horsey beef showed up in supermarkets, Ikea meatballs and even Taco Bell. None of these incidents were in the U.S. or involved U.S. beef supplies, however. So does the scandal really matter to Americans? Here's a primer on the answer to that question.
WHY DON'T AMERICANS EAT HORSE?
(Image credit: Parker Knight)
Historically, in the U.K., the horse's noble status prevented it from being served at the dinner table. Those feelings were then passed down to the U.S., where the horse became essential to westward expansion. In recent years, horses have been generally perceived as pets, not livestock. The brouhaha surrounding the horse meat saga is partly based on an emotional and psychological aversion to eating horse, rather than anything being wrong with the meat itself. Unlike pork or beef, horse meat doesn't have a consumer-friendly name to disassociate the meat from its source.
WHAT DOES HORSE TASTE LIKE?
(Image credit: JasonParis)
Horse is edible, better for you than beef and, according to some, it tastes delicious. When Joel Stein, a Time Magazine contributor, first tried a cut of horse, he wrote that it "turned out to be pretty awesome—a sweet, rich, superlean, oddly soft meat, closer to beef than venison."
IS HORSE MEAT EVEN LEGAL IN THE U.S.?
Until recently, both countries legally produced horse meat. In fact, the U.K. still produces it but, due to its unpopularity, it gets shipped off to horse meat-friendly locales like Italy, Belgium and France. Up until 2007, even the U.S. slaughtered horse for its meat and shipped it abroad. The USDA is currently weighing whether to ease the ban. It's also illegal to import horse meat into the U.S.
(Image credit: Charles D P Miller)
DOES ANYONE IN THE U.S. CARE ABOUT THE HORSE MEAT SCANDAL?
According to Brian Mabry, spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), "None of the countries and companies referenced in the E.U. export beef to the United States." Most experts believe it's unlikely horse will make it into the U.S. meat supply and there's no evidence of horse-tainted beef in the country. For now, the scandal remains an alternately amusing and terrifying side-show for consumers on the "safe side" of the Atlantic.
YES. AND IT MATTERS. HERE'S WHY.
It's not just about horse meat. Until recently, all American beef was banned in Europe. E.U. beef is still banned in the U.S. as a result of the "mad cow" epidemic. Only hormone-free beef, the underwhelming minority of U.S. beef, can legally be imported to Europe, accounting for a grand total of 0.36% of the entire E.U. beef market. The U.S. and E.U. are both listed as a "controlled risk" for beef consumption by the World Organization of Animal Health. As the scandal continues to expose the potential for food safety standards and regulatory processes to be breached on a massive scale, consumers will begin to question the quality of their food.
But scams like this not only erode consumer confidence, they're criminal acts punishable by jail time. Shocking revelations continue to unfold in the media spot light—experts believe some of the horse meat was tainted with toxic painkillers, industry insiders allege the racket was an international criminal conspiracy spearheaded by a Polish and Italian mafia ring and a meat pie in an Icelandic supermarket was found to contain "no mammalian DNA."
So of all the unwanted things to end up on the dinner table, horse is far from the worst. The scandal has instead exposed the food industry's underlying vulnerability to far more horrifying and biologically risky catastrophes—such as drugged-up mystery meat, food fraud and health hazards. Instead of seeking out scapegoats, pro-active companies should demand to know where their meat is coming from and what's in it. If the U.S. meat industry wants to stand up to the scrutiny and avoid a public shaming like the horse meat scandal, it needs to self-enforce stricter regulatory standards.
As for horse meat, legalize and label it. Those who want to eat it, will; those who don't, won't. But at least consumers will know what they are eating.
(Full disclosure: The writer of this article knowingly ate horse meat—and liked it.)
Would you like to see more food and beverage industry news and information like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Food Dive email newsletter! You may also want to check out Food Dive's look at the age when hot sauce use jumps off a cliff.