Commentary: Horse meat horses**t

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the U.S. meat industry, but an announcement earlier this week from authorities in The Netherlands once again demonstrated a serious flaw in the food-safety regulations governing animal foods.

According to news reports, Dutch authorities are going to recall 50,000 tons of beef sold throughout Europe—including France, Germany and Spain—because its exact source could not be verified, and thus the suspicion that the products might contain horse meat.

In all, 370 different companies in Europe and 132 in Holland will be affected by the recall because those firms purchased product from two Dutch trading companies, according to a statement from Esther Filon of the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority.

The authority released a statement explaining that because the exact source of the meat cannot be traced, “Its safety cannot be guaranteed.” The statement added that Dutch authorities have “no concrete indications that there is a risk to public health.”

Filon said the recall dates from Jan. 1, 2011, through Feb. 1, 2013, when the companies at the center of the recall came under heightened scrutiny and in some cases, criminal investigations.

The trading firms in question are Wiljo Import en Export B.V. and Vleesgroothandel Willy Selten B.V.

Don’t try to pronounce that second one; you’ll just hurt yourself.

As Filon told The Associated Press, “If meat has an unclear source, then the general food law says it is no longer fit for human or animal food.”

Here today, gone yesterday

There are two problems with this entire scenario: the nature of the announcement and the actual recall itself.

First of all, why do food-safety authorities on both sides of the Atlantic always maximize the extent of any recall? In this case, the amount was 50,000 tons, or an Austin Powers-esque 100 million pounds of product. When the period of a recall extends to more than two years, conceivably some of the beef could still be sitting in a freezer somewhere, but the reality is that nearly all of it has already been cooked and consumed.

Is it really necessary to wear out the office calculator figuring out the theoretical tonnage of product that might be affected by a 26-month recall? That inflated total then becomes the number the media reports, and that’s the amount of meat the public assumes will be pulled out of cold storage or from supermarkets cases, loaded on a giant convoy of trucks and hauled off to a landfill somewhere.

By publicizing the theoretical amount of product affected in a recall, authorities create a totally unrealistic scenario ripe for exaggeration by industry opponents and perfect for reinforcing false notions about the (alleged) lack of food safety too many consumers tend to believe is characteristic of meat products.

Filon herself conceded that because the recall dates back more than two years, some of the meat “may already have been consumed” (Some? You think?), but that authorities are bound by law to order that large of a recall.

Deeper down in the news stories reporting on the recall, it was noted that, “It was not immediately clear how much of the meat is likely to be tracked down,” although how many casual readers are going to slog through a news item about a recall? They catch the headline, shake their heads at the 50,000 ton-total and move on.

Even worse, Dutch authorities announced that they don’t intend to test all the meat. Why? Obviously, they don’t anticipate actually collecting all that much product, and I’m reading between the lines here, but neither does there seem to be any sense of urgency about the “threat” that some of this beef might contain horse meat.

But the more serious question here is why? Why did this continuing lack of source verification go on for more than two years? Horse meat or no, the law requires that raw materials be tracked and monitored, yet more than two years went by without anyone checking the documentation. How could that happen?

That’s a far worse problem than either the agency/media overkill on total tonnage or the continued charade about the “dangers” of horse meat.

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

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Suzanne Moore    
Indiana, USA  |  April, 14, 2013 at 08:25 AM

The authorities probably are concerned with the public health, wouldn't you think? They want to err on the safe side and they also know they're not being exactly on the up and up in their public assessment of the danger of ingesting even minute amounts of bute.

Morgan Griffith    
April, 14, 2013 at 11:36 AM

For the life of me I cannot figure out why the cattlemen are supporting the slaughtering of horses in this country. These animals are frequently tainted with many banned drugs. This would also be competition for your own product. I would be using this crisis/scandal to promote my own product and reinforcing how safe it is and how any medications in cattle are strictly controlled. I don't know if the control of meds in cattle is actually true but I would do my level best to contrast the horse meat market vs how I run my beef market. I certainly wouldn't throw my reputation and money into the ring with the sleazy and controversial business of horse slaughter. It reads to the public that you really don't care about feeding drug laden meat to people and this leads the public to wonder if there is a similar issue in your product. Just sayin. The argument that this is a slippery slope to banning the beef industry has got to be one of the worst paranoid arguments that I've heard in years. Only crazy Wyoming legislators spout arguments that bizarre. The beef industry has been going on for decade upon decade and I see no stoppage. Unless the public were to find out that there is a crossover between how the horseslaughter business operates and how you operate. I would sincerely advise you to walk away from supporting this just to protect your own businesses and reputation and I would come out and state that what is happening in the EU is disgusting. The silence from the meat industry in the USA has been deafening.

Corrine Wynne    
July, 03, 2013 at 12:11 AM

This mans only concern is rhetoric. The press releases he dissects and adds a withdrawal period to, however, the body of the argument is wasted on the theory that this is overkill. Does it EVER cross your mind when you write a piece like this the overkill may be to cover up something they are NOT supposed to be saying, like yes, its unheard of to lie about the legitimacy of the claims the drugs are not harmful. Come on, they do this to keep A@@'s out of the sling!

SD  |  July, 04, 2013 at 10:14 PM

A reasonably accurate guess as to why cattlemen would suport horse slaughter is that many people do not believe we have a right to tell other people what they may, or may not choose to eat. At the least, be consistent: condemn people who eat cats and dogs. They are definitely pets, and not, except very rarely, are they used in other ways for an actual benefit to humans. Horses, on the other hand, are definitely livestock, working animals on our ranches. It is NOT fair to a horse that, for whatever reason, most often an accident or old age, is no longer useful to the owner it is better that it serve another use. Many cultures have long eaten horse meat and when, as it will under USDA inspection, the meat is tested to be safe and free of residues, it should be used as food.

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