The news that Burger King has been selling horsemeat-contaminated Whoppers in the UK comes just days before Oklahoma debates a bill that would make horse slaughter legal in that state for the first time in 50 years.
If it succeeds, there could be a contaminated horse meat burger in your future. Here's why:
Reason #1: The way burgers are made
Your average beef burger is a big mash-up of edible scraps and parts from different cows from different plants, often from different states (and even countries), with fat and additives ground in.
This practice was exposed as part of a year-long investigation by the Kansas City Star of four of America's largest packing plants (Cargill, JBS, Tyson and National Beef), where photographs show tubs of scraps and cuts waiting to be ground into burgers, along with other truly unappetizing aspects of meat processing.
The practice was also exposed in a 2009 New York Times article, "The Burger That Shattered Her Life."
Producing ground beef this way "makes it difficult to trace liability to any particular plant in the case of e-coli contamination," says Dr. Lester Castro Friedlander, DVM, a veterinarian and former USDA inspector and inspections trainer of the year.
The contamination of Burger King Whoppers and Tesco patties show that it's not just disparate parts of different cattle from different plants and countries that find their way into burger meat, but pork and horse meat as well, all crossing borders (and datelines) and sold to unwary customers.
Polish horse meat-contaminated beef patties and Whoppers produced in Ireland and consumed in the UK? Just the tip of the horseberg.
Reason #2: Oklahoma bills seek to slaughter horses not raised as food animals
Rural U.S. lawmakers with ties to the cattle industry and economically-strapped horse breeding registries have been pushing to reopen horse slaughterhouses since the last three plants shut down in 2007 (two in Texas, one in Illinois).
On Tuesday, February 5, 2013, they're poised to try again in Oklahoma when a new bill sponsored by state Senator Mark Allen (SB375) is scheduled for a second reading in the state's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. Allen's bill would overturn Oklahoma's existing 1963 ban on selling and producing horsemeat.
Representative Skye McNiel is also pushing to overturn the ban with another bill, HB1999.
What's behind it are 140,000-150,000 U.S. horses that are now being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico for the EU and Japan plus about 45,000 mustangs unwisely removed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from public lands and warehoused at taxpayer expense, many in long-term holding pens in Oklahoma.
Quite a few people in the meat trade are pushing to weaken laws that would allow them to legally buy and sell these protected wild horses at a large profit to slaughter plants. (In fact, they've been doing this illegally for some time, as revealed in the National Journal article, "Is the U.S. Government Complicit in the Killing of Over 1,000 Wild Horses?" as well as in an investigation reported on in The Desert Independent).
They also want to slaughter horses disposed of by racetracks, rodeos, horse breeders and owners struggling in the recession -- a surplus market that has made the actual raising of horses as meat animals (the way cattle are) completely unnecessary in the U.S. for decades.
Sen. Allen's and Rep. McNiel's bills are trying to harness that business for their home state, which ranks fourth in the nation in horse ownership per capita and bills itself as the "horse show capital of the U.S."
It also happens to have several struggling racetracks as well as a large cattle industry--same as in Ireland and the UK. They don't raise horses for meat over there, either.
Reason #3: Carcinogenic contaminants in horse meat have been downplayed by UK authorities -- just as they are in the U.S.
"Burger King's 'cover-up' of horse meat scandal turns up cancer-causing drug in UK abattoirs" according to a Jan. 28 Daily Mail headline. And there are countless others just like it that have been surfacing in the media in recent months.
What they reveal about cancer-causing drugs in horse meat isn't specific to the UK, though; it's relevant here, especially since U.S. horses are more medicated than anywhere in the world with drugs banned in food animals by the FDA. Even one-time use of most of them is illegal in any animal slaughtered for human consumption.
The focus of the Daily Mail article is phenylbutazone (bute), a known human carcinogen. It also happens to be the most widely administered equine pain reliever in the U.S. as well as abroad -- one that can cause aplastic anemia in humans, even in minute amounts according to two scientific articles, including one published in the Veterinary Ireland Journal.
According to that article,
Phenylbutazone (bute) is arguably the most potent and effective pain relieving agent available in equine medicine in this country. The difficulty with phenylbutazone is that it, or its metabolite, can cause aplastic anemia in children. If a child were to consume an animal-based product containing even the minutest amount of bute or its metabolite then the child may develop aplastic anemia
Another article on the public health hazards posed by bute in horse meat published in Food and Chemical Toxicology is equally foreboding. Still, people who've eaten both horse meat and beef are fond of saying they're both equally safe and that there's no difference between eating one or the other. Why eat Elsie the cow and not Mr. Ed?
This is where a knowledge of veterinary science, slaughter and the testing process -- and not simply a passing familiarity with talking animals on TV or served-up as entrées -- is essential.
More than 90 percent of Americans who own horses report giving them bute, and the USDA has no working system for tracking its use. The only way to keep it out of U.S. horse meat is to raise horses for food the way cattle are.
But that's really expensive -- way more expensive than raising cattle. Remember, that it's cheap, available, surplus racehorses and other horses that bills like Oklahoma Senator Mark Allen's and Representative Skye McNiel's would send to slaughter and then sell commercially.
That would reopen a new pipeline for contaminated meat inside the U.S. that was shut down five years ago nationwide and 50 years ago in Oklahoma.
Reason #4: Poor labeling prevents consumers from knowing what's in their food and the industry works to keep it that way
Initial reports of the Tesco story all claimed that there were no food safety hazards from eating stealth horse meat, much in the same way that Burger King has covered up its horse meat contamination for two weeks while it got its PR plan together. That's standard for the industry on both sides of the pond.
As the Kansas City Star reported,
The beef industry is increasingly relying on a mechanical process to tenderize meat, exposing Americans to higher risk of E. coli poisoning. The industry then resists labeling such products, leaving consumers in the dark. The result: Beef in America is plentiful and affordable, spun out in enormous quantities at high speeds, but it's a bonanza with hidden dangers.
While the Star's specific focus is the risks of e-coli contamination in beef rather than the dangers of drug contamination in horse meat, consumers would be wise to educate themselves.
Horse meat contamination issues have been known for years but ignored by the industry and the USDA. I did happen to ask its Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) spokesman back in September, 2012, about what the agency was doing to deal with the preponderance of phenylbutazone in the population of U.S. slaughter horses and he said, "What's that?"
I spelled out the dangers and asked him to inform me when FSIS had some guidelines for dealing with them. No word on that in more than four months.
Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist and paid consultant to the slaughter industry, was similarly unaware of what bute was when I interviewed her more than a year ago for an article about a horse slaughter plant she designed that was found to have failed to legally stun horses before slaughtering them.
If Dr. Grandin and FSIS don't know about the dangers of bute in horsemeat, then how can horse meat ever be safe to sell or eat?
Reason #5: Consumers are misled about contamination issues by Wikipedia.
A lot of people argue that horse meat (or "cheval," as some marketers are trying to rebrand it) is a healthy alternative to beef, including quite a few journalists and particularly food bloggers. Why? Wikipedia's horse meat page of course.
No mention of drug contamination issues there. You have to instead visit Wikipedia's horse slaughter page to find the following: "Horses in the United States are not bred, raised or treated as meat. Almost all equine medications and treatments are labeled 'not for horses intended for human consumption.' In the European Union, horses intended for slaughter cannot be treated with many medications commonly used for U.S. horses. For horses going to slaughter, there is no period of withdrawal between the time it leaves home and the time it is butchered."
So there you have it. What happens in the UK doesn't stay in the UK. And if Oklahoma lawmakers succeed, it will certainly pose risks for U.S. consumers as well as a beef industry looking to reassure customers -- not lose them over food safety fears.
This is especially true if the USDA simply gives its "stamp of approval" without educating the public and confronting the drugging and other food safety issues that have existed for years.
This post was originally published on Forbes.