The Real Scandal Behind Britain’s Horsemeat Fiasco

Fancy eating me? Go buy a burger patty at Tesco's or queue at Burger King. Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty

In one of the greatest episodes of South Park, the show’s chief protagonist, Eric Cartman, takes revenge on a bully named Scott Tenorman by making him eat chili con carne concocted from the flesh of his parents. When Tenorman learns of his error, he retches and begins to sob. Cartman leaps onto the table and licks the boy’s face, drinking what he calls the “tears of unfathomable sadness.” That’s the end of the show.

For the past month consumers in the U.K. have been dealing with the queasy realization that we have, in our way, been Scott Tenormanned. So-called beef products—burgers, meatballs, lasagne—on sale in many supermarket chains have been found to contain horsemeat. And not just a bit of horsemeat. The scale ranges from beefburgers (Note to Americans: a beefburger is the British word for a hamburger, on the grounds that it is made from beef. Yeah. Go figure) containing 29 percent horse, which were found on sale in Tesco, to the now infamous Findus beef lasagne—a popular microwave dinner—which contained no beef at all. One hundred percent equine DNA: pure Seabiscuit.

We don’t eat horse here. The U.K. may be famous for its bad food; we may have produced such culinary abominations as deep-fried Mars bars and haggis pizza. But a Brit would no sooner eat a nag than a dog. We have our pride. Not eating horseflesh is one of the main ways in which we differentiate ourselves from barbarian races like the French.

And yet, well, we have been eating it. In countries all across Europe, adulterated products are being withdrawn from sale. In Britain, horsemeat has been found in products sold by mass-market supermarkets Iceland, Tesco, Co-Op, Aldi, and Lidl; fast-food chain Burger King; and Findus (rhymes with cinders), a pan-European brand of low-cost ready-meals with an annual turnover of $1.7 billion. Since the scandal broke, British supermarkets have pulled more than 10 million beefburgers from sale. This week Tesco withdrew a spaghetti dish that contained 60 percent horsemeat. Findus has pulled 400,000 lasagne. Aldi has withdrawn frozen lasagne and spaghetti bolognese. It has been suggested that horsemeat may have been on sale in the U.K. for up to a year.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA)—the body established in the 1990s to make sure things like this don’t happen—has asked retailers and suppliers to test their beef for traces of horse and report back by February 15. It is very likely that these tests will show the problem is widespread, particularly in cheap processed food. Schools, hospitals, pubs, kebab shops, hotels, and care homes—anyone with a large catering contract, basically—may find themselves drawn into the scandal. If you haven’t eaten horse, you’re either rich, vegetarian, or lucky.

The horsemeat that has been found so far entered the U.K. from several sources. There’s Comigel, a French exporter of frozen meals with a factory in Luxembourg that made products for Findus, Tesco, and Aldi in the U.K., as well as retailers and caterers in around 15 other countries. Then there’s ABP Food Group, an Irish company whose subsidiaries include the Silvercrest production plant in the Republic of Ireland and a sister firm, Dalepak, based in Yorkshire, England, both of which supplied British supermarkets with frozen burgers.

But that is only the beginning. Behind these manufacturing companies lie networks of suppliers such as Spanghero, a French firm that supplied Comigel with meat it had bought from Romanian slaughterhouses via traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands. Meat reached Silvercrest via the Irish broker McAdam Foods, which filled orders from a Danish-owned importer called Flexi Foods, based in the northern English town of Hull. And further back? Abattoirs and meat processing plants based all over Europe, from England and France to Poland and Romania.

Somewhere in this chain, someone has been committing food fraud, and each link in the chain is blaming the one behind it. The government blames the FSA for slack regulation. The FSA blames the retailers for poor quality control. The manufacturers blame each other: Findus is suing Comigel, which may sue Spanghero, which is filing suit against “X”—a French legal concept used when you want to sue someone but haven’t worked out exactly who it is yet.

Owen Paterson, the British Environment Agency secretary, says he suspects an “international criminal conspiracy” to pass off cheap horsemeat as beef. In other words: Don’t blame us, blame the foreigners. And the mob. There has been plenty of suspicion that the Romanians seem like the sort of ex-commie wrong’uns who would do a thing like this, an insinuation Romanian Agriculture Minister Daniel Constantin furiously denounced on Facebook this week: “We will not tolerate the faults of a European contractor to be transferred onto Romania without any real basis.” And he has a point. Whose hands are clean? On Tuesday this week, police raided an English slaughterhouse suspected of having sold horsemeat to a Welsh firm to be made into kebabs. Everyone knows kebabs are disgusting. But still. Horsemeat trading? This close to home?

One of Findus’s marketing lines is “You can trust us.” For what is the food industry based on if not trust? In any economy that has progressed beyond the self-sufficiency of the medieval homestead, people are divorced from the source of their food, often by many steps. Consumers must rely on the idea that what is sold as beef is beef—just as diners in a restaurant rely on the chef not to spit in the soup. When that trust is broken, it takes a very long time to recover.

Britain has a troublesome history with food-safety scandals. In March 1996 the European Union banned exports of British beef in response to the “mad-cow disease” crisis, in which more than 4 million cattle were slaughtered in an attempt to wipe it out. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) had been found to transmit to humans via beef offal, becoming new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which effectively (and fatally) turns your brain into a wet sponge. The general worldwide ban on British beef was only lifted in May 2006; Russia only agreed to lift it last November, following lobbying by Prime Minister David Cameron.

In 1988 there was another national health scare when a salmonella epidemic was reported in British eggs. The then–junior health minister Edwina Currie caused a massive slump in sales after stating that most of the egg production in the country was infected with the bacteria. Currie gained the amusing popular nickname Eggwina, and her reputation never wholly recovered.

jones-co0307-horse-embed4 One of Britain's popular microwave brands could honestly be called "Horse Lasagne." Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty

Horsemeat is not the new BSE. Some horsemeat may contain the painkiller phenylbutazone, or bute, which is never supposed to enter the human food chain, since it presents the small risk of messing up your bone marrow. And Romanian horses are banned from live export because so many of them have “horse AIDS,” which is gross rather than actually harmful to humans. Plenty of smug food writers have pointed out that horse is probably better for you than beef, since it is lower in fat. All the same, no government minister has so far volunteered to feed her children Findus beef lasagne.

And there’s another point. No government minister would feed her children Findus beef lasagne anyhow. The food at the center of the horsemeat scandal is almost without exception the cheapest sort of ready-meal from the lowest class of shop. At about $2.50 a meal, it is “pikey” (i.e., lower-class) food—the sort of salty, nasty, low-grade, microwave slop you would give your family only if you couldn’t afford anything better. Even if it were not contaminated with horse, a rough guess would say that the beef was more likely to be minced eyelid and snout than well-aged fillet.

But if all you can afford to eat is eyelid and snout, then your minimum basic expectation is that you are sold the eyelid and snout you paid for. Britain is braced for more bad news about the food its underclass has been reheating. A nation’s stomach churns.

Dan Jones is a columnist based in London. His new book is The Plantagenets.