After a week of screaming headlines and jokes of varying quality on social media, EU health commissioner Tonio Borg and the relevant national ministers announced a summit on the horse-for-beef scandal to be hold on Wednesday.
British, French and Swiss supermarkets have withdrawn “beef”burgers, lasagne and other processed foods containing meat supplied by French company Comigel, which insists that it has been conned by suppliers in Romania.
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has backed up his country’s butchers, insisting that no fraud took place in his country and saying he is “very angry” about the accusations.
But is there a threat to public health?
Horsemeat is quite happily consumed in many countries:
- In Japan it is served sliced and raw and has been used as a substitute for otoro bluefin tuna;
- In central Asia Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes used their steeds as takeaway food, drinking their blood during long marches over the steppes and it is today believed to keep diners warm in cold winters;
- In France horse butchers’ shops have existed since 1866, doing brisk trade during the 1870 siege of Paris, and, although some have closed recently, queues still form at horsemeat stalls on French markets.
Indeed, if European commissioner Borg is to take his health remit seriously he may be obliged to commend the substitution – horsemeat is lower in cholesterol and sodium and higher in iron and protein than beef.
There have been claims that the meat could contain the drug phenylbutazone, known as bute, that is used as an anti-inflammatory medicine for horses but is banned in food.
But Britain’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, declared there was a “low risk of serious effects”, although it could induce bone marrow failure in some people.
There could even be an environmental case for eating horse.
Cows, pigs, sheep and poultry are the world's greatest environmental threats, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
An FAO report, Livestock's long shadow, says the livestock industry is degrading land, contributing to the greenhouse effect, polluting water resources and destroying biodiversity.
If additional herds of horses were farmed for food, they would just add to the problem. But they are already overbred as sporting and companion animals. Large numbers who are too slow or too old to race or no longer wanted as pets are destroyed and then either cremated or used for pet food.
Of course, consumers are justified in expecting to buy what it says on the packet, as the law requires, but it seems doubtful that there would have been such a fuss about chicken being substituted for turkey or vice versa.
In fact, there are suspicions that the Findus readymade meals at the centre of the row contained pork – also not more damaging to human health than beef but offensive to Jews and Muslims who observe their religion’s dietary laws.
Let’s be honest, the soundbite-fuelled frenzy is largely based on dietary conservatism and a prejudice that, when it comes to the abattoir, some animals are more equal than others. You can make an ethical case for not eating meat at all but not for being a bit of a vegetarian.
The real scandals behind the scandal are the opacity, avarice and wastefulness of the food industry.
In a series of papers published in British medical journal the Lancet, experts predicted that non-communicable diseases (NCDs), cancer, heart disease and stroke, diabetes and respiratory diseases, would kill 50 million people a year by 2050, up from 34.5 million in 2010.
NCDs are partly caused by smoking, eating processed food, drinking and taking less exercise, a lifestyle encouraged by low pay, long working hours and advertising alcohol, energy-dense food and sugary drinks.
Not only do the big brands strive to conceal the harmful contents in processed foods, they also employ lobbyists to resist legislation that would force them to clearly warn of health dangers.
If they don’t even observe the limited labelling requirements already in place, consumers are bound to demand what other unannounced surprises await them in their freezers.
The tortuous process by which Comigel came by its Romanian beef tells another tale.
Luxembourg, where its factory is situated, may not have much prime farming land but the company could certainly have bought beef – end even horses – in the countryside around Metz, the eastern French city where its headquarters is located.
- How much petrol was wasted transporting thousands of carcasses across the continent?
- How much time and energy was wasted tracking down the cheapest supplier rather than buying from the farmer next door?
- How much attention was given to quality rather than price?
Questions that big food would probably rather not answer.