‘Mystery meat’ takes on a whole new meaning

By Christie Wilcox | February 28, 2013 8:00 pm

100% beef… if horses count as beef.

In case you didn’t hear, the big news in the food industry this week is the fact that — *gasp* — horsemeat has been detected in Burger King burgers and Ikea’s Swedish meatballs. Noses worldwide are turning up in disgust at the use of such crude ingredients in ground beef products.*

There’s no doubt that a good part of the fuss is that, for some of the Western world, horsemeat is taboo. Many people have an immediate, visceral reaction to the notion of eating horse, just like Americans generally react strongly to the idea of eating dogs. While our preferences are culturally rooted, the recent labeling exposures don’t just offend our palates. As consumers, we rely on retailers and restaurants to give us accurate information about which foods we are buying — whether it be to avoid allergies, follow religious preferences, choose more sustainable options, or count calories. Now, DNA barcoding is exposing just how often we are duped.

Labeling isn’t a European problem. In South Africa, game is a popular alternative to beef, with over 2.5 million hectares of land dedicated to farming a wide variety of wild meats. But a study published in Investigative Genetics today found that more than 3/4 of the game samples they tested were not the animal they said they were. Cuts labeled as wild game species were identified as horse, kangaroo, pork, lamb, and a suite of African animals not on the labels. The most prevalent substitution occurred for products labeled kudu (92% were mislabeled). A different South African study tells a simliar story. A study of beef products in South Africa published earlier this week found that 68% of samples contained species not declared in the product label, including donkey, buffalo, goat and pork, and almost a third of the products contained soy and gluten, even though the labels didn’t tell the consumer that. But, they didn’t find any horsemeat in their beef.

In the US, studies have found that more than 1/3 of all US fish are mislabeledA recent Oceana report found that 39% of fish sold in NY grocery stores, fish markets and sushi restaurants were not the fish they claimed to be, building on their earlier findings of in Boston (48%), Los Angeles (55%), and Miami (31%). Every single one of the 16 sushi restaurants tested sold mislabeled fish. Some species were substituted more often — 69% of the tuna sold wasn’t tuna, and thirteen different species were sold falsely under the label “red snapper”. But perhaps the worst part was that 94% of white tuna sold was actually escolar, a fish species known to cause poisoning. While the world is fretting about horses, I’d rather eat a little horsemeat than diarrhea-inducing escolar any day.

Why does it seem so hard for the world to correctly label the species in our stores? Part of the problem is that there is high economic incentive to lie. Species that are worth top dollar are particularly lucrative to forge. Until now, exposing such fraud has been difficult, as many species look the same once they’re ground, cut or filleted. But now, we can test foods on the genetic level, allowing us to identify all species present. Given these frauds have real financial, religious, ethical and public health ramifications, it seems past time that genetic testing become a constant part of the regulatory process.

Actually enacting such legislation, however, has proven difficult. In the UK, the the Food Standards Authority was quick to commission genetic testing after the scandal hit, but beforehand, testing had been declining for years. In the US, the USDA only genetically tests meat when there is a reason to suspect horseplay. And despite our clear fish labeling problem, no action was taken when the Safety And Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act was introduced last year. If we want to improve labeling, we need to push our governments and tell them that genetic testing is non-negotiable.

Is eating me wrong? Good question.

Perhaps, though, it is also time to look inward and reflect on our own cultural biases. What makes a cow so much better to eat than a horse, anyway? Why not make burgers out of insects? In a world where fishery after fishery collapses under our demand and livestock threatens our land, air and water resources, perhaps we need to diversify our idea of what is fit for our plates, and ulimately seek to minimize our ecological footprint by any food necessary. If there is anything that our labeling failures have exposed, it is the need to closely examine the animals we consume and the ways we catch or farm them to determine the best ones for us, both in terms of nutrition and by measures of sustainability.


* Just to put things in perspective, according to American Beef Standards cheek meat (read: beef face) is a fine additive. 30% fat? No problem! You don’t even want to know what parts of the cow go into the grinder… Heck, Taco Bell’s “meat filling” only has to be 40% meat to pass. But no, not the horses!

Jacquet J.L. & Pauly D. (2008). Trade secrets: Renaming and mislabeling of seafood, Marine Policy, 32 (3) 309-318. DOI:
Where is the game? Wild meat products authentication in South Africa: a case study. Maria E D’Amato, Evguenia Alechine, Kevin W Cloete, Sean Davison and Daniel Corach Investigative Genetics (in press)
Cawthorn D.M., Steinman H.A. & Hoffman L.C. (2013). A high incidence of species substitution and mislabelling detected in meat products sold in South Africa, Food Control, 32 (2) 440-449. DOI:

Images copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.j.stackhouse Daniel Stackhouse

    This would all be a moo point if we’d all just do the responsible, ethical thing and go vegan. Thanks for the interesting stats and perspective!

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I’m just concerned about whether they’re slaughtered humanely as it’s difficult to do it correctly to a horse. They have insanely thick skulls and they must be stunned in just the right spot or they will suffer. Anytime you have people slaughtering animals on the “down low” you get people cutting corners on stuff like this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Skip-Nordenholz/100003613616195 Skip Nordenholz

    This is a good way to motivate horses at the races, have a McDonalds out side the track that serves up the losers. I sure many putters who bet on the losers would love to have a chance to get their revenge.

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    Donkey meat is delicious, as is cheek meat. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten horse.

    The real story is that government regulations completely fail in their job, creating a false sense of trust by the public. Get rid of regulations and let the companies label the meat themselves, or use private testing firms that put labels on. Instead of waiting for a government inspector to do their job, which appears to be about 50% of the time, the public will take an active role in inspecting the food supply. They will uncover more cheaters this way and the court system and bad press will do a far better job.

    • http://www.facebook.com/all4kindness2all Leslie Bianchi

      You cannot expect corporations to be honest when it works against their profits.

      When government agencies that regulate are starved of funds then how are they supposed to be effective?

      Courts are terrible, hind-sighted solution that’s about compensation for harm.

      Better we pretax profits to fund effective testing (add it to the upfront costs of engaging in that business) and have that process be transparent to the consumers. This keeps congress out of the politics of regulation and prevents lobbyists from influencing the watering down of effective policies.

      It never makes sense to have profit as an interfering motive related to regulation and safety of the public.

      • Buddy199

        Government bureaucrats always complain they are starved for funds no matter how much money they get from the public. I wouldn’t count on them for protection from anything..

        • http://www.facebook.com/all4kindness2all Leslie Bianchi

          I don’t think their funding should come from the public – it should come from the industry in a pretax of profit, but the regulators need to add transparency reporting for public access — the point is to protect the public and so the public has a right to know everything about how they do that.

          If they don’t do their job, fire them and hire better people.

          Just cause someone is employed by the government doesn’t make them better or worse than if they were they employed by a company

    • m12345

      The problem is yes you have been eating horse and you don’t know about it.

      But a pure horse-meat burger is like flaky-beef, I prefer a proper beef steak burger, but I thought the horse burger was good enough.
      The mince based burger would be hard to tell the difference, except the texture, the flavour is identical when covered in lettuce, tomatoe, sauce and chips etc.

  • http://mados.wordpress.com Mados

    What makes a cow so much better to eat than a horse, anyway?

    That a cow isn’t usually, and has usually never been, a human’s friend. Most horses have. Would you want your grand child’s childhood friend to end its life in the abattoir? Even if just theoretically. (if you’ve never had a friendship with a pet, then relate to the feelings of someone else who has).

    ‘Taboo animals’ is not in any way a ‘stupid’ cultural bias. You can
    eat human too if you like (for example those third world humans you
    don’t know and who are too many for their own good anyway), but that
    would mess with the social structures: who is a friend, who is prey, who
    is predator? Even if you will never befriend those people, they could
    be your friends just as well as your other friends if destiny placed
    them in your vicinity.

    It is the same with dogs and horses. Those are animals that have evolved alongside our species as ‘human allies’ for possibly as long as we have existed as the modern human species. They are friends. You do mind eating friends (and those who are similar to friends) if you are human. If you say you don’t mind, you are really just pretending that you are some sort of super-rational principle rather than human.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rhodomel.meads Rhodomel Meads

      Eating your pet is the best thing there is, in some culture. The pets become part of you. What higher level of much longer companionship when the pets become one with you. Part of their molecules become embedded in your flesh. Some cultures eat their deceased relatives to become part of them. Maybe gross to us, but makes perfect sense to other cultures.

      • http://mados.wordpress.com Mados

        However, in this case that was not what was going on. People were deceived into eating meat from animals they would have (presumable) chosen not to eat.

    • David Klein

      Uhm, while I was growing up on the farm, there were calves and kids that would follow me around closer than the dogs. The horse was an all terrain vehicle, the dogs was part of the alarm system (the other part being the geese) and the calves and kids were the pets. Yeah, some of the pets got eaten or sold to the butcher. But that was just part of being on the farm.

      • http://mados.wordpress.com Mados

        I guess you train yourself to not think through what happens to them when you grow up on a farm…

        I have worked on farms, mostly with pigs both indoor conventional pig production and outdoor. In one place it was part of my duties to drive the pigs to the abattoir myself. I didn’t like the way they were handled there by the incompetent young man receiving them, so I felt bad about that part (still angry about it now 13 years later). But other than that, had no issues with it… That was just the rules of the game. However, although I like the animals and want them to thrive and not suffer et.c., they were not my pets.

        but of course, pigs can be pet (very fun pets actually) and are just as worthy as any other animals. This is not about ‘worthyness’ of chosen animals but about protecting human emotional/social investments and trust, social integrity, things like that.

  • tiredofyourshit

    how about don’t eat animals at all. jesus

    • http://twitter.com/gmodproject The Tweet Of GMOD

      Well said, Jesus!

      • Buddy199

        Jesus ate fish, or at least supplied it at weddings when the caterers ran short.

  • Buddy199

    Seems the government regulators in this case are as effective as they were in preventing the sub-prime mortgage disaster.

    Private consumer groups should do their own testing, they’re more motivated than somnolent government drones. If a company or business is caught cheating it should be publicized far and wide. The last thing Chubby Burger would want is a story about their serving horse meat circulating through the internet forever.

  • marc dauncey

    This article *completely* misses the point about why people are so worried about horsemeat in beef.

    “There is concern that some horses are given a drug called bute (phenylbutazone) which can be dangerous to humans. In rare cases it causes a serious blood disorder known as aplastic anaemia, where the body does not make enough new blood cells”

    There is no safe dose of thjs drug for human beings. The carcasses that ended up in food for humans would not have been used for dog or cat food. Surely it’s not hard to research a topic, especially as this is a science blog for gods sake.


    • http://www.facebook.com/all4kindness2all Leslie Bianchi

      isn’t the testing for antibiotics and other drugs already being done?

    • Erdie

      That was more of a passionate, knee-jerk reaction to the discovery in the first place. From a health standpoint, there isn’t anything worth worrying about. Using your source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21482127

  • Søren Kongstad

    Here in Denmark, and in the EU in general, all meat sold to consumers must have a clear lineage – no mystery meat.
    For example,if a local pizzeria here in Copenhagen cannot prove where they bought their ham topping, they must destroy their stock, and they are fined.
    The problem with the horse meat is not that it is horse, but that it shows that coporations are guilty of fraud.
    If the lineage of the meat used is not known, then by definition the meat is not acceptable for human consumption. If they mix in horse and lie about it, what is to stop them from using the meat that haven’t been refrigerated, meat from sick animals, meat from animals treated with large doses of antibiotics etc.
    You cannot test all meat for all possible faults or contaminants, but as long as you can go down the chain from the local pizza shop to the farm, and be reasonable sure that safe procedures are in place in every link, then the consumer can have some basic security.
    Break the chain and all bets are of.

    • Buddy199

      Your regulators are a lot more on the ball than ours. Then again, it’s Denmark.

  • DJ6ual

    One more reason to grow and hunt our own food. If we went back to living off the land maybe we would respect it a little bit more.



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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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