My Real Concern About the Great Horsemeat Controversy

Earlier this year, a controversy exploded across Europe as horsemeat was found in ground beef products at a list of locations that seemed to grow by the week. Hamburgers, Ikea meatballs, and more were suddenly invaded by equines, to the horror of many people, and to endless commentary and discussion in the newspapers. A healthy number of jokes, of course, were told as well, and there was a lot of discussion about the moral relativity involved in being outraged about the presence of horse meat in products labeled as cow meat; both are animals, so why is one worse to eat than the other? Why are we deeply concerned and upset at the thought of eating horses, but not cattle?

I observed the controversy with interest, but not necessarily because I was intrigued by the horse versus cow discussion dominating many stories. On the contrary, the story reminded me of the serious problems with the meat industry, and the concerns that everyone should share about the safety of their meat. Those of us who eat meat should be asking what’s in it, and I’m not talking about which species, although that is a legitimate concern1, but rather…what else might be lurking in our meat.

What the horsemeat controversy showed was that our meat is routinely contaminated, and that the inspection process for identifying contamination is not working. If horse can end up in processed meat products, that means that other harmful components can too. For example, tissue from the nervous system like brains and spinal cords, which is banned from meat due to concerns about spongiform encephalopathies. That’s a public health concern, and it’s one that needs to be taken very seriously, yet apparently isn’t, because if meat from the wrong species can end up in processed meat, it’s pretty obvious that meat from the wrong part of the body can as well.

And, of course, if meat processing facilities aren’t being well inspected, that means there could be other public health risks as well. Refrigeration and handling procedures might leave meat vulnerable to contamination by microbes, including those carried by workers as well as those brought in on slaughtered animals. Failure to inspect meat leaves open-ended questions about whether it contains antibiotics, steroids, and other compounds that farmers may be using to enhance meat, doing so in full awareness that they aren’t going to get caught because the inspection process is imperfect.

Furthermore, without inspection, meat packing workers and other people handling meat are vulnerable to exploitation. In an industry where speed is king and profits are made by cutting corners in every possible direction—as, for example, by stuffing horse into packages of ground beef—workers are at risk of serious abuses. Think horse in your meat is bad? Try human, because on the job injuries are common in meat packing plants and stopping the production line to address the situation isn’t a high priority when the focus is on getting meat out for sale. That means that workers who lose fingers (or worse) literally lose them…right in that meat grinder preparing products for human consumption.

As in the US, many European meat packing workers are immigrants, often undocumented, working for low pay and in harsh conditions. Some may be working in some form of indenture, with employers compelling them to work until they’ve paid off debts associated with their passage into Europe. Supervisors may hold their identification papers and other documents, compelling them to stay with a given company and making it impossible to file complaints with law enforcement or immigrant welfare agencies without risking deportation. A vast, disposable workforce labours on the killing floor and on the packing line, and if the government can’t even be bothered to check to be sure that meat labeled as ‘beef’ is really beef, you can be assured that it isn’t checking to see if worker welfare laws are being respected.

What the meat controversy shows is not simply that many people are squeamish about eating horse. It highlights the depths of the problems with the meat industry, which has been allowed to grow to a considerable size with minimal regulation and inspection. With economic difficulties pushing austerity policies across Europe, keeping pace with the industry is difficult because the very agencies charged with doing so are fighting funding cuts. Cuts that limit the number of available inspectors, researchers, and other personnel responsible for developing and enforcing regulations designed to protect consumers, workers, and animals alike.

And if you think the problem is limited to Europe, think again. The USDA has faced a number of major funding cuts and freely admits that it is having trouble inspecting US-produced meat. So much so that it’s discussed self-inspection with key members of the agricultural industry, which would be an utter disaster, as meat producers have no real incentive to protect consumers beyond addressing glaring safety issues to protect themselves from legal liabilities associated with outbreaks of illness and recalls. Workers will come in at the bottom of the priority list there, because there wouldn’t be any reason to protect a workforce that has virtually no legal standing or ability to defend itself.

If you’re going to eat meat, ponder not just which species are acceptable to you and why, but what price you’re willing to pay for your meat products. And ask yourself if you’re sure about the safety of your meat and the workers who produced it the next time you pick up a pack of ground hamburger.

  1. Particularly for people with allergies and dietary restrictions related to religious practices.