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What does Europe’s horsemeat scandal mean for the U.S.?

The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service tests the meat that ends up on dinner tables all over the country. (artizone/Flickr)
The U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service tests the meat that ends up on dinner tables all over the country. (artizone/Flickr)

Consumers in Europe are still shocked and paralyzed after learning that ready-made meals advertised as beef products – lasagna, hamburger, salami – actually contained horsemeat. Authorities are still unpacking the extent of the deception, but the case has already touched at least a dozen countries. Authorities warned in early February that the horsemeat could also contain the potentially harmful equine anti-inflammatory drug Phenylbutazone, or bute.

It isn’t easy to watch the scandal unfold in Europe, especially without wondering if U.S. consumers have been similarly duped. Could the United States have a similar horsemeat scandal on its hands? Could we get a bite of domestic or imported horsemeat in one of our burgers?

The truth is, we really don’t know what’s in our food unless it’s tested. But the chances that American consumers are knowingly eating horsemeat are slimmer here than in the EU. That’s because while over 1 billion people eat horsemeat worldwide, according to veterinarian Tom Lenz, who is the former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, horsemeat is not much of a delicacy here. It was last widely eaten in the U.S. in the 1940s, according to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office (PDF). Still, horsemeat plays a part in the U.S. food system. 

Domestic horse slaughter was halted in the U.S. in 2007 so each year more than 100,000 American horses are exported to Canada and Mexico for processing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service requires these horses be officially identified and accompanied by interstate certificates of veterinary inspection through its “Traceability for Livestock Moving Interstate” rule passed in January 2013. Canadian and Mexican food safety organizations say they also examine horse vaccination and medication records and test the animals for potentially harmful veterinary drugs like bute. So do European and Asian countries that import horsemeat for human consumption.

Still, even if horsemeat is not in demand in the United States, American regulators and consumers will be watching Europe’s horsemeat scandal closely as it continues to roll out. Especially since in 2011, Congress restored funding for inspecting horse slaughtering facilities, cracking open the door for horse slaughter in the U.S. A Wyoming company is also hoping to open the first new abattoir, or slaughter house, south of Kansas City, Mo.

Europe’s mystery horsemeat first came to light last month after Ireland’s Food Safety Authority announced that it had in the course of routine tests of beef meal products detected the presence of unlabeled horsemeat in 10 of 27 of the beef burger products it sampled. Eventually, recalls were issued at popular grocery chains like Tesco and Aldi where the meat was sold. 

To reduce consumer exposure to unsafe meat products, the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says it will review its beef testing procedures and modernize beef slaughter operations in Fiscal Year 2013 (PDF). This month, the FSIS also implemented a new “test and hold” policy that requires importers to hold shipments of ready-to-eat products containing meat and poultry until they test negative for foodborne pathogens.

Without testing, the horsemeat scandal would never have come to light in Europe and it’s the only way we can be sure U.S. consumers aren’t in for a similar surprise.