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February 26, 2013

Horse Meat on the American Dinner Plate?

Can horse meat find its way into the U.S. food supply? I would not be the least bit surprised if it does turn up, now that people are starting to look. The U.S. Department of Agriculture largely relies upon a self-reporting system that leaves us at the mercy of other nations, even as the number of countries audited by U.S. officials every year has declined by more than 60 percent since 2008.

Many European food manufacturers sell meat products in the U.S. If horse meat wound up unexpectedly in the European meat supply, why couldn’t it be in the U.S. supply too?

We have all of the expected assurances from federal food safety officials and other leading authorities that the systems in place are sufficient to protect against any replay of what has been happening in Europe. But we had similar assurances about the safety of pet food, before melamine found its way into tens of millions of cans and pouches of that product in 2007, killing dogs and cats across the country. We were told of the sheer impossibility of mad cow disease in the U.S. supply chain before we saw an incident a decade ago that had a $12 billion impact on the beef industry.

It’s no easy thing to secure the food supply. More than ever, it’s a global enterprise with supply chains stretching thousands of miles – a point of vulnerability for food safety and infiltration at the production, transport and processing stages. As The HSUS and so many other watchdog groups have pointed out, there are serious gaps in the system, along with disreputable people in the production and supply chain who can take advantage or corrupt it.

270x240 horse slaughter kmilani
Kathy Milani/The HSUS

For Western nations, with the most developed regulatory frameworks in place for slaughter and meat processing, that oversight system is focused principally on food-borne pathogens, with worker attention and testing occurring in the post-mortem period. The system is not built to detect when meat from one species has fraudulently been substituted for another, as happened in Europe. Until the horse meat scandal, that sort of testing was rarely performed.

Here’s what we do know. The meat industry in the U.S. is lobbying for laws to make it a crime just to take a photo in a meat processing facility. We know that it’s trying to cover up animal abuse and food safety problems. Whether this is an industry-wide goal or not, such lack of transparency means that there are fewer eyes on the facilities involved in production and transport, and that provides an opening for unscrupulous operators.

The American meat industry – which includes the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and others – is the biggest proponent of slaughtering horses for human consumption. It’s not exactly a leap to suggest that they want to push horse meat onto the plates of American consumers. In yesterday’s New York Times, one proponent of slaughter boasted that there is growing demand for the product in the U.S. 

It puzzles me that agribusiness trade groups would potentially put the beef and pork sectors at risk in order to give a toehold to the highly marginal horse slaughter industry. Haven’t they watched as beef sales in Europe have taken a nose-dive and vegetarianism has surged since the horse meat scandal hit the front pages? Do they not realize that a similar consumer response would happen here in the United States if the same discovery happened on this side of the Atlantic?

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