Commentary: No horsemeat heroes here

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The headlines in UK newspapers have been sensational (as British papers are justly famous for): “Endemic fraud in food industry is responsible for horse meat scandal, peer claims,” was a recent one.

(Just an observation, though: There’s not a newspaper in the entire United States that would use the word “endemic,” for fear of losing the majority of their readers).

According to that story, which appeared in The Telegraph, “Thousands of shadowy figures in the food industry must have known that horse meat was being used in British products for years,” Lord Haskins was quoted as saying.

Haskins—Baron Christopher Robin Haskins of Skidby to us commoners—is the peer in question. A lifelong Member of the British Parliament’s House of Lords, he is the former chairman of Northern Foods, a multi-billion dollar firm that markets both meat and dairy products to some of Britain’s largest retail chains and is considered the pioneer in bringing “ready meals” to English dinner tables.

According to the newspaper, Haskins’ comments came in the wake of Owen Paterson, Britain’s Environment Secretary, warning British consumers that the horse meat scandal is likely to get worse. Paterson promised that if any health risks were discovered in contaminated meat, he would “take the necessary action,” suggesting that some meat imports could be banned.

Other headlines related to the ongoing story were even more blunt:

  • “Tesco confirms its frozen spaghetti bolognese is up to 100% horse meat” Everyday Value Spaghetti Bolognese was withdrawn from sale a week ago
  • “Thousands of horses sold for slaughter in Irish scam” Horses not fit for human consumption have been given false passports to be sold for hundreds of euros
  • “MP raises fears schools may have ‘horse meat lurking in freezers’ ” Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh says government has been ‘well behind the curve’ on the horse meat scandal

A couple comments:

First of all, what does anyone expect when they’re purchasing “Everyday Value Spaghetti Bolognese?” 100% ground sirloin? Here’s a hint: When the package says “Value,” don’t expect a whole lot of it.

Second, is the scandal that horses “not fit for human consumption” ended up in the food chain? No, not really. Judging by the news coverage, it’s the fact that horse meat period was found in food products that’s the basis of people’s fear and loathing.

Finally, can meat of any species “lurk” in a freezer? Doesn’t that word choice imply that horse meat is deadly and dangerous per se?

Indeed, that’s the underlying problem with all the hysteria. Granted, finding out that horses are being illegally butchered and added to Everyday Value Spaghetti Bolognese isn’t a comforting revelation. But since no one has claimed any illness (yet) from eating all this equine product, it appears that the horses actually were fit for human consumption.

The truth is that horse meat isn’t lurking anywhere, waiting to poison unsuspecting consumers. Its addition to beef products is certainly unacceptable, as well as illegal. However, it’s no different than if consumers woke up one day to discover that processors were adding venison to hamburger patties. No one’s going to die, and if proper food-handling and preparation procedures are followed, no one’s even going to get sick.

Except maybe after soaking up the sensationalized stories about horse meat “lurking” in a freezer somewhere, waiting for its chance to get them.

But leave it to Lord Haskins, who as chairman of Northern Foods for over 20 years presumably knows a little something about food processing, to cloud the issue—totally.

“When you are dealing with something like minced meat, which has been a perilous product forever,” he told The Telegraph, “you really . . . need to see the whole lump of meat before it’s processed to be sure of where it comes from.”

I don’t wish to be judgmental, but it appears that the esteemed baron either doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about, or else he’s shrewdly trying to deflect blame elsewhere—as if it’s someone else’s fault horse meat ended up in the kind of processed products his former company is one of the biggest marketers of in all of Europe.

That comment he made about “shadowy figures in the food industry” who’ve known “for years” something was amiss with illegal horse meat?

Checked the mirror lately, M’Lord?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Missouri  |  February, 15, 2013 at 04:46 PM

I cann't help but notice how the issue of pork being added to the beef is virtually being ignored. I guess that horse makes for better headlines than just to say that cheaper meats were being added to extend the higher priced beef.

Morgan Griffith    
April, 14, 2013 at 11:49 AM

Horses, esp American horses, are routinely given drugs that are banned from even one dose in their lifetimes. Despite the "passport" system, which was to insure that no horse given these drugs made it into the food chain, they have found at least 7,000 fraudulent passports. The health issues behind eating horse meat is not the same as food poisoning. The results might not show immediately and when they do might not be traced back to consuming horse meat due to lack of education of the treating doctors. In many of these diseases (such as aplastic anemia) it doesn't matter how you got them it is the fact that you have them and that they must be treated. I cannot figure out why you are so forgiving of this type of fraud. And why you would support an industry such as this. Why would you not want to stress your untainted products and not support competition?

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