Could you be eating horsemeat?


The media in the UK and Europe have been in a frenzy about the "Horsemeat Scandal". The hullabaloo has to do with the substitution of a specific type of meat, in this case horsemeat, in processed meat products like sausages, mince and lasagne, in the place of beef. The issue is basically one of consumer deception and fraud.


If you tune in to UK TV stations you are likely to hear endless interviews about the horsemeat topic, which has been going on for weeks. Health officials, meat inspectors, newspaper and TV reporters and the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) have been following the trail of the tainted meat on its torturous route through Europe. Accusations have been rife and most of the countries that have a proverbial "finger in [this] pie", have at some stage been singled out as culprits (e.g. France, Romania, Sweden, etc) (Health24, 2013; Whitfield, 2013).

On Friday the horsemeat scandal escalated when the FSA in Britain had to admit that although it tests all horsemeat leaving the UK for human consumption in Europe, they had not stopped meat potentially contaminated with a drug called phenylbutazone or "bute" from entering the European food chain."‘Bute" is used as a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug to treat pain and fever in horses (The Independent, 2013). For humans to suffer harm from consuming horsemeat food products like lasagne which contain small amounts of "bute", they would have to eat mountains of this dish, but that is not the principle that is at stake.

What the public in Britain and the EU are upset about, is that they have been mutually duped about their food and what it contains. In addition, eating horses, has for centuries been repugnant and taboo in many nations.

An ancient taboo

It is possible when early humans tamed the ancestors of the horse and found how useful it was as a beast of burden, that they made hunting and eating of horsemeat taboo to protect their primary means of transport. In many countries, this taboo has become part of our cultural attitude towards meat products.

One of my favourite authors, Reay Tannahill, says in her classic book Food in History (1988), that “In Britain eating horsemeat was considered almost on a par to cannibalism...” The author goes on to describe attempts in the 1850s to popularise horsemeat to "improve the diet of the poor". These attempts, it turns out, were moderately successful in France, but failed dismally in Britain. The British public did not appreciate "fillet of Pegasus". It would appear that not much has changed in British and French attitudes to eating horse flesh.

Some other countries of course do not have the same compunction about eating the flesh of unusual mammals. Horsemeat is a popular dish in countries as divergent as Japan, Romania, Mexico and China (Moon, 2013).

What about South Africa?

According to a report published last week on (Ismail, 2013), South African consumers are ostensibly safe from the horsemeat scandal, thanks to "very stringent veterinary health tests". This reassuring attitude has now been questioned by another more recent article by Whitfield (2013), who points out that food products, such as frozen ready-to-eat meals, which are prepared by the Findus company, are imported into South Africa for Pick n Pay Holdings. Findus is one of the companies involved in the horsemeat scandal. As Whitfield says, "The food chain is long and can be difficult to trace.." (Whitfield, 2013).

South Africa may, therefore, also be dragged into this international debacle.

But we already have our own substitution problems. Last December, Wendy Knowler ( 2012A) featured an article on the substitution of meat derived from other species in South African processed meat products such as "wors" (sausage) and mince. She also reported that DNA tests conducted on samples of venison served at certain restaurants, have shown that meat sold as "warthog" was actually pork, and that wildebeest had been substituted for springbuck (Knowler, 2012B).

DNA testing

Until recently, most consumers had no way of knowing what meat(s) they were eating when they purchased processed meat like sausages, including our national favourite "Boerewors", mince meat, prepared meat dishes such as lasagne or hamburger patties to name but a few. Now, however, with the advent of DNA testing, laboratories are able to determine if the beef in a meat dish or product is really beef or a mixture of chicken, pork and other species.

Hence the flurry of discoveries that there is "horse in my wors" to quote Wendy Knowler (2012A) and Mike Moon (2013), or that the exotic warthog fillet you have purchased at great cost as a delicacy, is a piece of ordinary pork.

The allergy aspect

What is also important, is that these more sophisticated laboratory tests are able to identify foreign proteins in mixed food products and pinpoint the presence of soya or gluten, which as every individual with soya or gluten allergies knows, can in a worse case scenario be a question of life and death. Ms Knowler (2012) reports that many of the processed meat samples that were tested in South Africa last year contained “undeclared soya or gluten”, despite the fact that such allergens are required by law to be declared on the labels of, or in close proximity to such food products.

Religious contraventions

Another problem is the contravention of religious dietary regulations when meat products containing pork or horsemeat are sold to Muslims, Jews or Zionists. Adherents of these religions either follow Mosaic Law or similar regulations. Mosaic Law prohibit eating pork and also horsemeat (pigs do not chew the cud and horses have neither cloven hooves, nor chew the cud as required by religious injunction if they are to be regarded as ‘clean’ and fit for consumption) (Tannahill, 1988).

Practical considerations

a) Costs

The implications of the horsemeat scandal and the discoveries that processed meat and venison in South Africa are often not what they say they are, would mean that DNA testing has to be conducted on thousands of different products at hundreds of different manufacturers, importers and food purveyors.

I am not sure that any but the most affluent countries can afford this type of testing on so vast a scale. I doubt that South Africa has the capacity or the funds to take part in this exercise. Even the UK will probably find it prohibitive to test so many samples. And at the end of the day, it will be the cash-strapped consumer who is going to have to pay for all these tests.

b) Accuracy of sampling

Then there is the sampling process which can be a minefield of uncertainty. Contamination of samples before testing, in food processing plants that handle a variety of meats, could give totally inaccurate and wrong results. A manufacturer may be accused of adding undeclared meat species to a given product, when in fact the ‘forbidden’ protein may have entered the sample because of poor sampling techniques or post-sampling contamination.

The current scandal is indeed making a hash of our processed meat and until a system of control that is highly accurate, but not prohibitively expensive, is put in place, the public will still be none the wiser.

Buying meat produced in South Africa from a reputable butcher or supermarket and actually having a good look at the meat and the labels that processed meat products display, may help you to select processed meat that contains what is promised.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, February 2013)

(Photo of horse from Shutterstock)

(References: Health24 (2013). ‘Horse lasagne’ sparks food scare; Ismail A (2013). Horsemeat scandal: SA safe. 13th February 2013; Knowler W (2012A). Is there horse in my wors? Pretoria News, Monday December 10th 2012; Knowler W (2012B). Warthog offered on menu could be hogwash. Pretoria News, Monday December 10th 2012; Moon M (2013). How about horse in your wors? The Times. 15th February 2013, p. 20; The Independent (2013). Drug link as horsemeat scandal grows. Pretoria News, 12th February 2013; Whitfield B (2013). Meat scandal tentacles reach into SA. 15th February 2013.)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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