News about the presence of horse meat in beef products sold in the UK has been public knowledge for about a month now.
Events have developed at a remarkable rate, with new stories featuring almost daily in newspapers and popular television programs. Debates about how British supermarkets source their meat and how the market is controlled and monitored have arisen, but many will be shocked to learn that a similar scandal occurred before.
The story first broke in mid-January, when Irish food inspectors revealed that DNA tests had confirmed the presence of horse meat in frozen beef burger lines sold by major UK supermarket chains. The horse meat was predominantly imported to the Irish factories from Poland and other European countries.
Tesco made a frank public apology to their customers, with ‘We apologise’ letters posted in shop windows and national newspapers, after it was uncovered that its frozen beef burger lines contained horse meat. Aldi faced similar humiliation after its frozen burgers were also embroiled in the scandal. Customers have been promised a full refund or suitable replacement.
Waitrose and Sainsbury’s withdrew their frozen burgers as a precautionary measure, but it was later discovered that they contained no trace of horse meat. These burgers are now back on sale.
In early February, events took a dramatic turn for the worse. Tesco withdrew its frozen spaghetti ready meals after further tests revealed that they contained up to 60% horse meat. Findus Lasagne was also found
to contain 100% horse meat. Both companies have pledged to complete a thorough review to uncover how this occurred.
The Food Standards Agency has now waded in on the debate, ordering an immediate nationwide test of beef products sold within the UK. Results are expected soon.
As well as the events unfolding close to home, up to 16 countries have been affected by the news. Arrests have taken place and criminal cases are in action against food manufacturers. The safety of the food chain remains in doubt and it has been claimed that many consumers have lost faith in supermarkets.
The 2013 scandal is, however, far from unique or new, with a similar horse meat scandal occurring in 1948. At this time, it was legal to buy horse meat from the local butcher. It was often cheap to purchase, which was a welcome relief for those struggling in the post-war economic downtown. As a result, horse meat often became an integral part of the weekly diet. However, up to two million people ate horse meat unknowingly; food labelling was scarce at the time and many manufacturers disguised horse as beef. Backstreet restaurants were guilty of this as they served customers horse who had ordered veal or steak.
Farmers complained that food agents were undercutting their prices at horse fairs. Indeed, eight out of ten horses sold in 1948 reached slaughter houses and up to a quarter of a million horses were killed in little over a year. The trade of horse meat even threatened the extinction of certain breeds in 1948.
Public disapproval eventually outlawed the trade of horse meat in Britain. News that horse meat has found its way back into the British food chain is an alarming revelation for most consumers. Horse meat is deemed a safe food source and is indeed eaten in Europe and Asia, but is not accepted in Britain, partly because of our emotional connection to horses as pets.
So, the question remains: has horse meat been disguised as beef and other meat products all this time? And will there be more scandals in the future?