The media in the UK and Europe have been in a frenzy about the "Horsemeat
Scandal". The hullabaloo has to do with the substitution of a specific type
of meat, in this case horsemeat, in processed meat products like sausages, mince
and lasagne, in the place of beef. The issue is basically one of consumer
deception and fraud.
If you tune in to UK TV stations you are likely to hear endless interviews
about the horsemeat topic, which has been going on for weeks. Health officials,
meat inspectors, newspaper and TV reporters and the British Food Standards
Agency (FSA) have been following the trail of the tainted meat on its torturous
route through Europe. Accusations have been rife and most of the countries that
have a proverbial "finger in [this] pie", have at some stage been singled out as
culprits (e.g. France, Romania, Sweden, etc) (Health24, 2013; Whitfield,
On Friday the horsemeat scandal escalated when the FSA in Britain had to
admit that although it tests all horsemeat leaving the UK for human consumption
in Europe, they had not stopped meat potentially contaminated with a drug called
phenylbutazone or "bute" from entering the European food chain."‘Bute" is used
as a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug to treat pain and fever in horses (The
Independent, 2013). For humans to suffer harm from consuming horsemeat food
products like lasagne which contain small amounts of "bute", they would have to
eat mountains of this dish, but that is not the principle that is at stake.
What the public in Britain and the EU are upset about, is that they have been
mutually duped about their food and what it contains. In addition, eating
horses, has for centuries been repugnant and taboo in many nations.
An ancient taboo
It is possible when early humans tamed the ancestors of the horse and found
how useful it was as a beast of burden, that they made hunting and eating of
horsemeat taboo to protect their primary means of transport. In many countries,
this taboo has become part of our cultural attitude towards meat products.
One of my favourite authors, Reay Tannahill, says in her classic book Food
in History (1988), that “In Britain eating horsemeat was considered almost
on a par to cannibalism...” The author goes on to describe attempts in the 1850s
to popularise horsemeat to "improve the diet of the poor". These attempts, it
turns out, were moderately successful in France, but failed dismally in Britain.
The British public did not appreciate "fillet of Pegasus". It would appear that
not much has changed in British and French attitudes to eating horse flesh.
Some other countries of course do not have the same compunction about eating
the flesh of unusual mammals. Horsemeat is a popular dish in countries as
divergent as Japan, Romania, Mexico and China (Moon, 2013).
What about South Africa?
According to a report
published last week on Fin24.com (Ismail, 2013), South African consumers are
ostensibly safe from the horsemeat scandal, thanks to "very stringent veterinary
health tests". This reassuring attitude has now been questioned by another more
recent article by Whitfield (2013), who points out that food products, such as
frozen ready-to-eat meals, which are prepared by the Findus company, are
imported into South Africa for Pick n Pay Holdings. Findus is one of the
companies involved in the horsemeat scandal. As Whitfield says, "The food chain
is long and can be difficult to trace.." (Whitfield, 2013).
South Africa may, therefore, also be dragged into this international
But we already have our own substitution problems. Last December, Wendy
Knowler ( 2012A) featured an article on the substitution of meat derived from
other species in South African processed meat products such as "wors"
(sausage) and mince. She also reported that DNA tests conducted on samples of
venison served at certain restaurants, have shown that meat sold as "warthog"
was actually pork, and that wildebeest had been substituted for springbuck
Until recently, most consumers had no way of knowing what meat(s) they were
eating when they purchased processed meat like sausages, including our national
favourite "Boerewors", mince meat, prepared meat dishes such as lasagne or
hamburger patties to name but a few. Now, however, with the advent of DNA
testing, laboratories are able to determine if the beef in a meat dish or
product is really beef or a mixture of chicken, pork and other species.
Hence the flurry of discoveries that there is "horse in my wors" to quote
Wendy Knowler (2012A) and Mike Moon (2013), or that the exotic warthog fillet
you have purchased at great cost as a delicacy, is a piece of ordinary pork.
The allergy aspect
What is also important, is that these more sophisticated laboratory tests are
able to identify foreign proteins in mixed food products and pinpoint the
presence of soya or gluten, which as every individual with soya or gluten allergies
knows, can in a worse case scenario be a question of life and death. Ms Knowler
(2012) reports that many of the processed meat samples that were tested in South
Africa last year contained “undeclared soya or gluten”, despite the fact that
such allergens are required by law to be declared on the labels of, or in close
proximity to such food products.
Another problem is the contravention of religious dietary regulations when
meat products containing pork or horsemeat are sold to Muslims, Jews or
Zionists. Adherents of these religions either follow Mosaic Law or similar
regulations. Mosaic Law prohibit eating pork and also horsemeat (pigs do not
chew the cud and horses have neither cloven hooves, nor chew the cud as required
by religious injunction if they are to be regarded as ‘clean’ and fit for
consumption) (Tannahill, 1988).
The implications of the horsemeat scandal and the discoveries that processed
meat and venison in South Africa are often not what they say they are, would
mean that DNA testing has to be conducted on thousands of different products at
hundreds of different manufacturers, importers and food purveyors.
not sure that any but the most affluent countries can afford this type of
testing on so vast a scale. I doubt that South Africa has the capacity or the
funds to take part in this exercise. Even the UK will probably find it
prohibitive to test so many samples. And at the end of the day, it will be the
cash-strapped consumer who is going to have to pay for all these tests.
b) Accuracy of sampling
Then there is the sampling process which can be a minefield of uncertainty.
Contamination of samples before testing, in food processing plants that handle a
variety of meats, could give totally inaccurate and wrong results. A
manufacturer may be accused of adding undeclared meat species to a given
product, when in fact the ‘forbidden’ protein may have entered the sample
because of poor sampling techniques or post-sampling contamination.
The current scandal is indeed making a hash of our processed meat and until a
system of control that is highly accurate, but not prohibitively expensive, is
put in place, the public will still be none the wiser.
Buying meat produced in South Africa from a reputable butcher or supermarket
and actually having a good look at the meat and the labels that processed meat
products display, may help you to select processed meat that contains what is
- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc,
(Photo of horse from Shutterstock)
(References: Health24 (2013). ‘Horse
lasagne’ sparks food scare; Ismail A (2013). Horsemeat
scandal: SA safe. Fin24.com. 13th February 2013; Knowler W (2012A). Is there
horse in my wors? Pretoria News, Monday December 10th 2012; Knowler W (2012B).
Warthog offered on menu could be hogwash. Pretoria News, Monday December 10th
2012; Moon M (2013). How about horse in your wors? The Times. 15th February
2013, p. 20; The Independent (2013). Drug link as horsemeat scandal grows.
Pretoria News, 12th February 2013; Whitfield B (2013). Meat
scandal tentacles reach into SA. Fin24.com. 15th February
questions? Ask DietDoc
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com.