In mid-January, after two months of investigation, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland made the announcement that consumers who thought they were buying beef in the form of frozen hamburgers and prepared meals were actually buying horsemeat, or pork. The news was not well received, particularly since the supermarkets in Ireland that stocked the products had ties to supermarkets in England.
The scandal spread from Irish and English Tesco supermarkets to their suppliers—Silvercrest Foods and Liffey Meats in Ireland, and Yorkshire supplier Dalepak—and far beyond the borders of the U.K. Silvercrest and Dalepak are subsidiaries of ABP Food Group, one of the largest European beef processors. ABP, which gets its meat from a variety of sources, claimed the adulteration occurred with supplies from Spain and the Netherlands, then later pointed to Poland as the source.
However, Poland’s government has found no problems with the labeling in its horse slaughterhouses, and the search continued even as adulterated products were found in more retail outlets, including restaurants, and even schools. In the U.K., Taco Bell restaurants, outlets of hotel and restaurant chain Whitbreads PLC, and even schools found horse DNA in various types of prepared meals. Ikea’s Swedish meatballs and lasagna were found to be part horsemeat, and supermarkets from France to Switzerland found themselves caught up in the contamination as well, with some DNA tests revealing between 80%–100% horsemeat instead of beef. Food giant Nestlé has also pulled some of its products from the shelves of Italian and Spanish markets and French caterers, and the contamination has reached as far as Hong Kong.
Aside from the personal scruples of whether one wants to consume horsemeat in the guise of beef—after all, France, Belgium, and some other European countries do eat horses on a regular, if limited, basis—are fraud, labeling, contamination, and health issues that affect more than just food processors, wholesalers, slaughterhouses, and retail outlets; not just businesses but also state and international agencies are on the line.
After the mad cow scare in the 1990s, Europe banned British beef and set in place stiff controls designed to account for the country of origin of animals slaughtered for fresh meat. However, when that meat is further processed, most controls other than tests for food safety slip away, leaving plenty of opportunities throughout the vast and convoluted supply chain to insert ringers—not just horse and pig, but, as additional DNA tests have determined, even donkey. Horsemeat has also surfaced in fresh meat, however, so even there safeguards have not been foolproof.
The source for the majority of horsemeat found in the wake of testing has been variously reported as Poland, Romania, and several other countries. Some of the horsemeat did come from Romania, and was sent, via a Cyprus-registered trader, to another trader in the Netherlands named Draap Trading (which is Dutch for “horse” spelled backwards). Draap sold the Romanian horsemeat to French meat wholesaler Spanghero, which then sold it to Comigel, a French frozen food processor. From Comigel the meat went to many countries under the label of Swedish-based Findus, in lasagna and other products.
Director Jan Fasen of Draap was already convicted of selling horsemeat as beef to France in January of 2012, and during his trial it emerged that he had sold Mexican and South American horsemeat to France as far back as 2007 that was labeled as Dutch and German beef. Fasen has said that the meat he sold to Spanghero was clearly labeled as horsemeat, and that Spaghero and French manufacturers were aware of what they were buying.