Horsemeat and beyond


The 2013 horsemeat scandal revealed widespread mislabelling of food including ‘beef’ that was actually horsemeat, as well as other mislabelled foods such as beef-burgers that tested positive for pig DNA. There are health concerns that horsemeat may come from racehorses treated with veterinary drugs. Then there was the warehouse in Spain containing 15 tons of dog meat, it’s not known for certain where they were destined. Going meat-free is the only way to make sure you avoid eating horse, dog, cat or rat.   

The 2013 horsemeat scandal arose when people discovered that foods they had eaten, that they thought contained beef, actually contained horsemeat (and no beef at all in some cases). An investigation by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found horse DNA in frozen ‘beef-burgers’ that were sold in several Irish and British supermarkets. The DNA testing also revealed widespread mislabelling whereby beef-burgers contained pig DNA (Food Safety Authority of Ireland, 2013).

The meat industry would argue that the presence of undeclared meat is not a health issue. However, there is increasing evidence that meat can cause allergic reactions, indeed, a prevalence of beef, pork and chicken allergies has been reported (Tanabe et al., 2007). Furthermore, it’s not unreasonable to want to know what is in your food!

The scandal revealed a major breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain and showed the potential for harmful ingredients to be included as well. Where did these horses come from? Sports horses could have entered the food supply chain, and with them the veterinary drug phenylbutazone which is banned in farmed animals.

The scandal has since spread to other European countries. In 2015, a study looking at processed meat products from Italian markets and supermarkets found that 57 per cent of products were mislabelled (Di Pinto et al., 2014). The study revealed a high probability of incorrect species declaration in meat products and insufficient labelling information for sausages, pâté and meat patties. It confirmed that fraudulent descriptions, with various undeclared animal species in ready-to-cook meat products, and adulteration of meat products with an undeclared mixture of meats, are widespread.

In 2012, Spanish police found a warehouse in the Galician town of As Neves filled with 15 tons of dead stray dogs which they believed were going to be processed into animal feed. It is feared that stray dogs from Spain may have been used to make pet food, farm animal feed and may have even been used in foods for human consumption.   

Viva! found out in 2013 that the UK FSA authorised testing for dog and cat meat in 11 samples from a range of take-away premises in Enfield in London. The samples taken were raw meat and labelled as being beef or lamb. Results were negative but we asked them why they weren’t testing a wider area given that they were aware of the scandal in Spain. The FSA said that they didn’t think it was necessary. Spanish authorities say they cannot rule out that dog meat has not already entered the human food chain and the contamination could be widespread across Spain and other EU countries.

This raises concerns for British supermarkets and processors who had no idea that horsemeat was in their products. The tests that showed widespread contamination with horsemeat would not have revealed the presence of dog or cat meat. There are fears that meat from euthanised dogs, cats, horses and other sick or unwanted stray animals may have found its way into pet food, farmed animal feed or food for human consumption. The concern here is that residues of antibiotics and other drugs, used to treat those animals, may end up in some meat products. It’s a shocking prospect for most that dog and cat meat might have entered the human food chain, but given the depth of deceit the horsemeat scandal exposed, it seems entirely plausible. It may only be a matter of time before dog, cat and perhaps even rat meat is found in a British meat pie. The obvious way to avoid being caught out is to not eat meat.