The horse-meat scandal seems to grow by the day – for those who have been on the Planet Mars, testing first undertaken in Ireland revealed horse DNA in prepared meals such as burgers, lasagne and spaghetti bolognese from major outlets including Tesco’s. The testing has since been extended and horse has been found in the UK, France, and Sweden thus far.

Last night’s BBC Panorama programme also revealed that pet horses in Ireland have been disappearing on an ‘industrial’ scale, which alerted various bodies there that some type of criminal activity must be going on.

Some of the products tested have been found to be 100% horse meat, but only around 2% of samples in the latest round of UK testing have been found to contain horse, and those represent products that were already known to have this issue and that have been withdrawn from the shelves.

Clearly there are several issues here – one is labelling, in that consumers have legal rights to be eating what the packaging says is contained in the food within. Another is of contamination – horses are sometimes fed a drug known as ‘bute’, and if they have had this given to them they are unfit for human consumption (due to known possible side-effects). The third main issue, of course – certainly in Ireland and the UK – is that horses are regarded as pets and not something to eat, so there is an emotional element to this whole scandal that undoubtedly adds to its high profile.

In some countries, including France, horse is already part of the diet and the scandal will relate more to labelling and the fact that these horses may have been given a drug that could affect those that consume them.

Observed reactions have ranged from the radical (one family I know will only eat cheese and onion pies, on the grounds that there is no way you could sneak horse into one of those), to the apathetic – either those who would never in any event eat a Tesco’s bargain-range lasagne, or those who see a dose of bute as a potentially exciting addition to their day. 

Aside from the hazards potentially surrounding the drug – and an expert on last night’s Panorama rather downplayed these – to my mind the most distressing revelation is that at least some of these horses were probably much-loved pet animals stolen to order for this ghastly food con. Thinking that they were distressed old nags from Romania was bad enough, but now we have to imagine the upset caused to young owners who now realise their favourite friend has ended up in a Tesco’s freezer.

Undoubtedly, behind all of this is a serious criminal operation, and as such it is unlikely the perpetrators have any concern either for the feelings of young horse owners or the health of those consuming the fake foods they are creating. And as some commentators have said, this may only be the tip of an ugly iceberg – who is to say what other types of animals have ended up in the food chain?

Remarkably, the UK government appears not to be pressing for testing to discover other types of animal DNA, even pork – the most likely other type of animal to be passed off as beef, and of course an animal that certain religions are banned from eating. 

Ultimately, being a cynic, I rather think that whether or not wider DNA testing is undertaken will depend not on government suddenly growing a need to care for voters, but on whether shoppers can be persuaded to return to buying foods that contain processed meat without a watertight guarantee that their pie does not contain horse, pig, sheep, rat, cat, dog, or – heaven forbid – something Sweeney Todd might have felt inclined to throw in…

Cheese and onion pie, anyone?Image