It’s not just horse meat. It’s not just Europe.
Earlier this year, dinner tables across Europe were graced with an uninvited guest.
When it left Romania it was a horse. A Swedish food producer moved it to a facility in France where it came out labeled as cow. In Luxembourg it became ground beef. The horse-cow meat turned up as frozen hamburger patties in England and Ireland; it went into ravioli and tortellini in Italy and Spain; it appeared in Belgian chili con carne, French moussaka, and Swedish shepherd’s pie. Slovakia, Hungary, Portugal, and the Netherlands had horse-cow meat show up in school cafeterias, fast food outlets, and hospital meals. At the same time, South Africa was undergoing its own meat disaster with donkey, goat, and water buffalo showing up in sausages, burger patties, and deli meats; and 20,000 tons of mislabeled meats were removed from China’s markets where rat, fox, and mink meat was spiced up and sold as lamb.
Of course it could happen here.
Some familiar U.S. brands were ensnared in the European scandal like Burger King, Taco Bell, and Birds Eye. There was even a near miss with Ikea’s worldwide shipments of Swedish meatballs. But the real reason we’re ripe for our own food fiasco is that we have our own kinks in the food supply chain.
Meat processing has changed dramatically in recent decades. A hamburger eaten in the 1970’s would have been processed by a small, perhaps local, meat packer and likely contained beef from a single cow. Today’s meat packer has thousands of animals sourced from a vast, international network of suppliers moving through in a single day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a single hamburger can contain the meat of as many as 400 different cows. Yet oversight is provided by an arcane, archaic, and under-funded food safety system that lacks both traceability and transparency.
You could argue it already is happening.
There have been large-scale, deadly failures in our safety inspections of eggs and beef. We regularly import fraudulently-labeled specialty foods like Kobe beef, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil, and major retailers like Wal-Mart have been found to sell dozens of conventional items labeled as organic. Most egregious and widespread is the mislabeling of fish. The nonprofit conservation group Oceana reports that fraud is so rampant throughout the supply chain that one-third of all fish is misrepresented, and for popular fish varieties like red snapper, salmon, and cod it occurs as often as 75% of the time. Mislabeled fish exploits all of us as consumers, but potential allergens, toxins, and contaminants also pose a serious health threat.
Every year contaminated food sickens 48 million Americans. Although none of the mislabeled horse meat reached our shores, it’s clear that the U.S. food supply has plenty of its own vulnerabilities.