Burgergate: What does the news of horse meat in British and Irish supermarkets mean to American horses?

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There seem to be no end to the jokes about this week's discovery that horse meat was found in hamburgers sold in supermarkets in Great Britain and Ireland. But this is not a spoof, ?nor is it even a prank: Major supermarkets are struggling with evidence that their ground beef contains not just traces, but a significant percentage, of ground horse meat.

On the front page of one of Britain's largest newspapers, the story of horse meat being found in supermarket hamburger was the top story above the fold--even though British civilians had been kidnapped in Algeria.

On the front page of one of Britain's largest newspapers, the story of horse meat being found in supermarket hamburger was the top story above the fold--even though British civilians had been kidnapped in Algeria.

The discovery was made by DNA analysis of hamburger sold by one provider. Not only did the "beef" contain horse, it also contained pork.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) found the presence of horse DNA in more than a third of the beef burger products it tested. Officials in Britain today hinted that horsemeat may have been in burger meat sold in the UK for years, since sophisticated tests were never available until recently.

There's some confusion about the actual source of the meat, i.e., the country of origin of the horses whose meat is mixed in.

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In Britain and Ireland, horses are issued "passports", which allow a horse to be designated?"excluded from the human food chain".

Fraudulent horse passports, however, prove that it is possible to beat the British system that keeps horses out of the food chain.

That said, legal horse slaughter does go on for the processing of horses whose passports indicate that they are safe and eligible.

In a BHS position statement published this morning, the British Horse Society (BHS) clarifies that it neither condones nor encourages eating horse meat. But it is concerned about the control--or lack of it--that would allow horse meat to show up in supermarkets.

The BHS, it says, must concern itself with protecting and caring for the horses that are alive. There, as here in the USA, the system is bogged down with the results of a breeding spree that created a glut of horses as the economy slowed down.

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Now, the "burgergate" scandal has revealed that the increase in horse slaughter in Ireland may be even more exponential.?Des Leadon's 2011 statistics (see graphic and download full paper below) were updated this week by the Irish Independent's coverage of the burger scandal, which informed us: "The most recent figures available show that in 2008 just over 2,000 horses were slaughtered at Department of Agriculture-approved abbatoirs, but by 2011 some 12,386 horses were slaughtered within the equine industry."

The article projects an even bigger increase for 2012, although the statistics aren't available yet: "Official figures for 2012 are not yet available but some sources suggest that over 20,000 horses were slaughtered last year."

What's a knackery? What's an abbatoir?

One of the problems in Ireland is that there are two types of slaughterhouses, with two different names. One is a proper slaughterhouse, also called an "abattoir", these places convert a living horse to a meat carcass and are government listed; Ireland has had three such facilities, and recently added two more, according to the Independent.

The other is a "knackery". Ireland has 40 of these establishments. This quaint but chilling word describes a much more rudimentary place of slaughter, for horses that need to be put down but that are not destined for human consumption.

Irish officials hinted yesterday that the tainted burger might possibly be sourced to a knackery if it was illegally selling horsemeat to a European processor.

Does any of this mean anything to American readers? It might be interesting to note that Tesco, the chain supermarket at the head of the list of accidental horsemeat sellers, owns the US chain of supermarkets called Fresh and Easy.

On November 1, The Jurga Report checked in with some startling statistics about the massive increase in the number of horses slaughtered in the Netherlands and Belgium last year. The Irish statistics are even more exponential than the Dutch or Belgian numbers.

What this may mean is that, in the near future, European meatpackers and processors may be faced with a glut of horsemeat caused by a glut of horses. You understand the law of supply and demand; this means that the price of horse meat would go down and that meat agents can be much more selective in the horses they bid on.

The global fallout of a drop in price in Europe would include a dramatic impact on the value of US auction horses in the checkbooks of the so-called "kill buyers". Recent tightening of regulations in the European Union about drug and medication residue in horse meat have been widely publicized; this could also mean a slowdown, if not a stop, to the export of horsemeat from US racehorses.

Look at a weather map of the horse world and you may see a "perfect storm" brewing. While most Americans aren't fans of the idea of slaughtering horses and the government has created an alternative system so that horses are slaughtered in Mexico or Canada, the fact is that the flow of horses through that system has gone on. If that system closes or even slows, the welfare of thousands of horses will be impacted and the knockoff effect will impact the actual and perceived value of all horses, and create a national disaster of the equine welfare kind as we struggle to figure out how and where to warehouse unwanted horses, and who will pay for their care.

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Coinciding with this looming crisis, the stallion issues for American horse breeds and sports are filling the mailbox here at The Jurga Report, along with horse magazines featuring advice to amateur breeders. Research foundations continue to fund highly sophisticated equine reproduction research. Horse lovers on Facebook continue to fawn over foal pictures. Accountability is still a concept that is not yet part of the business plans of many breeders.

While Americans have recently been arguing over whether or not to build (and allow to be inspected) new slaughterhouses here, that argument becomes moot if there is no market for the meat. If you cut off the demand, there's no profit in the business model.

In Great Britain and Ireland, equine welfare organizations do not make judgments on whether or not horse meat should be on human plates and restaurant menus. Rather, they politely state that horse meat is not normally eaten in their cultures, but that they do realize that horse slaughter is a necessary evil.

Years ago, Great Britain adopted a persuasive policy of doing its own slaughtering and exporting the meat "on the hook" to continental packagers and processors, thereby avoiding the meat being anything but a raw material (literally). By comparison, continental horses are often shipped hundreds of miles to slaughterhouses so that their meat--and the salami made from the leftovers--can be labeled as a product of a certain country. Horses slaughtered for meat in Italy often travel from eastern Europe for days in exchange for the privilege of being labeled as a "product of Italy".

Food labeling nuances are common in Europe, as well as in the United States. Take a look at that bottle of extra-virgin olive oil in your kitchen. Yes, the one with the musical-sounding Italian name. Chances are, the olives were grown in Tunisia or another country, and the oil was pressed there too. But because vats of it were transported to and bottled in Italy, it passes the label test.

If you're looking for "real" Italian olive oil, look on the top shelf, it will be among the most expensive oils.

The British-based World Horse Welfare has fought against the practice of long hauls to slaughter; these truckloads of horses often drive right by local knackeries that could have done the job. In spite of tightened regulations, World Horse Welfare bemoans the fact that little funding for enforcement of the regulations is available to authorities.

Meanwhile, the British newspaper The Guardian announced today that the supermarkets with the tainted beef will have it rendered and use it for energy.

The unappetizing discovery seems to have inspired a wave of Twitter wit and even cartoons in the Times of London. Maybe they don't take themselves--or their horses--so seriously, after all. But, even if it wasn't horse meat involved, consider what it means that the most sophisticated cultures in the world cannot be sure of what, exactly, is on their plates.

Recommended reading:

Unwanted and slaughter horses:A European and Irish perspective by Des Leadon, Irish Equine Centre, 2011, in Animal Frontiers journal.

"Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil" is a great book by Tom Mueller; listen to the NPR "Fresh Air" interview for insight into food labeling, particularly for "Italian" olive oil

The If Wishes Were Horses blog, written by author Susanna Forrest, has some very insightful articles on what's going on in the UK and Europe. Susanna's "They Eat Horses" article in yesterday's Telegraph is also highly recommended.

After the Breeders Cup, What's Next? NBC Plans Feature on CANTER Organization as Belgian, Dutch Announce Ominous Slaughter Statistics from The Jurga Report