This piece of meat industry news isn’t terrible. But it’s not good news, either.
After months of scandal in Europe, when illegal horse meat was detected in all kinds of processed beef products, USDA announced that the department is planning to increase testing on meat imports to confirm that shipments to the United States don’t contain horse meat.
“We are confident that the inspection system at ports of entry ensures the safety of products that come into our country,” Cathy Cochran, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, told Bloomberg News. “However, in response to recent events and consumer concerns, we are increasing species testing to enhance current safeguards and prevent fraudulently labeled products from entering the country.”
The key phrase is “in response to consumer concerns.”
That doesn’t mean that hundreds—maybe thousands—of people emailed or phoned USDA offices last week to express their alarm over the issue.
Because they didn’t.
Nor does it mean that large numbers of people are genuinely “concerned” about the possible presence of horse meat in processed beef products imported from Europe.
Because they’re not.
The reality is that this is a non-issue with the meat-eating public.
Oh sure: If you asked people point blank, “Would you be concerned if you found out that horse meat was illegally added to beef products imported from Europe?” a majority of people would say something along the lines of, “Gross! No—I don’t want to eat horse meat.”
If you polled a similar sample with the question, “What are your top concerns about the U.S. food supply?” the possible presence of horse meat in some imported bangers or meat pies wouldn’t make the top 10. Heck, it wouldn’t even make the top 40.
It’s a non-issue for most people for obvious reasons: We don’t eat a lot of imported meat products from Europe, and other than the “ick factor,” there’s no real danger from finding out after the fact that you ate a bite of English breakfast sausage that contained ground up horse meat.
No, the news that FSIS will now conduct species sampling on raw ground beef and veal products imported from Iceland, Ireland, Poland and the UK at the same time those products are sampled for pathogenic strains of E. coli is a non-story about a non-existent problem.
Yes, the extent of the distribution of products containing illegally added horse meat across Europe has been eye-opening. Some of the biggest names in retailing have been caught up in the relentless news coverage, including Ikea, which was forced to removed its iconic Swedish meatballs from its in-store restaurants; Taco Bell’s UK division, which withdrew ground beef from its restaurants there; and British supermarket retailers Tesco and Aldi, which pulled numerous shipment of processed meat products out of their stores.
What USDA didn’t mention in its announcement was the fact that none of the countries or companies in the EU that recalled beef products because of concerns they might be tainted with horse meat actually export any beef products to the United States. In fact, you can’t even find any mention of this alleged problem of imported horse meat-tainted foods anywhere on the websites of all the usual consumer food advocacy groups, who would normally love to jump on a “Bash-Big-Agribusiness” bandwagon.
Those groups are plenty worked up about a lot of other issue affecting producers and processors—antibiotics usage, ag subsidies, GMO feed ingredients, mechanically tenderized beef; the list is lengthy—nothing about horse meat, though.
Quality, not safety
Bottom line: There isn’t any threat to the wholesomeness or safety of the American food supply from imported European foods. The presence of horse meat triggers labeling violations, and it’s highly unethical, as well. But the very fact that months, maybe years, went by before the scandal was uncovered in Europe—and no one got sick—tells you that even if somebody is mixing in horse meat with their ground beef it’s a quality issue, not a safety issue.
Allegedly, European critics have contended that racehorses, who may be treated with veterinary drugs such as the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, could have been slaughtered and funneled into the food supply. But those would be 1,200-pound animals receiving a dose of the drugs in amounts that would make it extremely unlikely that any remaining residues in the muscle tissue could actually harm anyone eating a serving of lasagna with added ground beef containing traces of horse meat.
And for the record: Horse meat, according to USDA’s own database, is lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein that beef. People have been eating it for centuries, and not just in Europe.
We’ve lost our stomach for it, due to issues unrelated to safety or nutrition, but if FSIS has found the funding with which to beef up its testing protocols for European specialty meats, there are far better uses of those laboratory, personnel and monetary resources.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.