Is horse meat safe to eat? Does “burger-gate” go beyond squeamishness about eating equines and point to larger health concerns?
Dr Duncan Campbell, the chief public analyst for West Yorkshire, has commented in the Guardian on the odds of the infamous “Equine DNA” in the “value burgers” containing common horse medications like bute that are dangerous for the humans who consume them further down the food chain. (See the journal article, The Association of phenylbutazone usage with horses bought for slaughter: A public health risk. Dodman NH, Blondeau N, Marini AM. Food & Chemical Toxicology 2010 Vol. 48: 1270-1274.)
This will come as no surprise to anyone in the horse world, especially the US. I’ve covered it on this blog plenty of times, and managed to squeeze a brief mention into the Telegraph history piece. It’s going to be a key question in book two, The Age of the Horse.
Some of these meds do work their way out of the system. This means that the horses involved have to be kept drug-free for a period of months before slaughter, which of course adds to the expense of the meat. On Twitter, Alliandre told me that this is common practice with retired harness horses in Italy. Given horses’ propensity to injure themselves in the most innocent field, I have to wonder what happens if you have to treat the horses with the same drugs – do you simply start the counter all over again?
In theory Europe has a safety net that ensures that horses that have been treated with these drugs do not end up in burgers: the passport system. Each horse has one, and it must specify whether the horse can be slaughtered or not. In a discussion on the Horse and Hound website, a poster pointed out that she’s been obliged to sign the “do not slaughter” note on her horses’ passports because otherwise her vet would not be able to administer life-saving drugs to the animals without her permission (should she be away on holiday or unreachable). This probably means that most European working or leisure horses should be off the menu.
The thing is, you don’t have to wander far into any UK horse forum before you come across dark mutterings about passports getting “lost” or “reissued” with a clean veterinary slate at dodgy markets. In the US the system is even laxer: there are no passports. Many American horses slaughtered in Canada or Mexico end up being shipped to Europe in cutlet (or filler?) form, and many contain drugs that are banned in food animals by the European Union. The New York Times’ excellent series on the overmedication of racehorses in America goes into detail on this issue here. In mid-October Canada and Mexico even went so far as to close their borders* to US slaughter-bound horses for a few days, after drug traces were found in meat leaving the abattoirs. The EU will crack down still further on these regulations this year; pro-horse meat advocates say they are working on a solution. Watch this space…
As to the cheap British burgers, the Food Standards Agency told the Guardian that all the samples were dope-free:
“The FSA is stressing that, on the basis of the evidence, there is no food safety risk to consumers from these products. There is nothing about horse meat that makes it any less safe than other meat products. The meat products were supplied to the retailers by approved establishments. The burgers that contained horse DNA were tested by FSAI for the presence of phenylbutazone, a commonly used medicine in horses that is not allowed in the food chain; all of the results were negative.”
The Telegraph is reporting that the “filler” came from a Dutch firm, the horses from Argentina or Brazil. Again, I’m reminded of dark mutterings on a UK horse forum about a large number of Argentinian horses stranded in a flooded field by an English river last month, and the alleged possibility that they were shipped over to Europe for the meat trade… It seems that we have a shortage of groovy, locavore, organic, happy herds to supply those who might just be curious to sample horse.
Meanwhile, I’m going to order a copy of Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, because I suspect that burgergate is an old, old story indeed.
* Update: the borders weren’t closed, but the slaughterhouses stopped accepting the horses for a few days.