What began as a seemingly isolated discovery of equine DNA in meat marketed as beef in Ireland has erupted into a scandal spanning 14 European countries.
The issue first cropped up last month and now encompasses food safety agencies from Ireland, the Netherlands, UK and others.
The latest food found to include the meat is meatballs sold in IKEA stores in Europe. The company has also halted sales of its meatballs in Thailand, Hong Kong and Dominican Republic, Bloomberg reports. It becomes the second multi-national food company to issue a massive recall of certain prepared meat products – Swiss company Nestle recalled beef lasagna and pasta products last week.
Initial industry test results returned
The UK's Food Standards Agency, which announced in mid-February it would launch a significant official probe into the scandal, reports that more than 514 products will be sampled in a separate industry test, including ready meals, minced beef, beef sausage and burgers. The tests will also check for pork DNA.
Initial results of food industry tests, released Feb. 22, found that 99% of tests contained no horse DNA at or above the level of 1%, and no tests have found the veterinary drug phenylbutazone (bute).
"The FSA's main focus at this point is on gross contamination of beef products with the substitution of horse meat, where there is more than 1% horse DNA detected in a product. The Agency believes that such levels of horse DNA indicate either gross negligence or deliberate substitution of one meat for another," the agency said in release last week.
More food industry test results are expected Friday.
Official FSA testing continues
FSA's formal sampling programs began Feb. 25, and will be analyzed for a report by April. FSA Chief Executive Catherine Brown said initial findings will be available by early March.
Brown said also that preliminary testing, which has shown negative results for horse meat is reassuring, but FSA's work is not finished and there will be consequences for the person or persons responsible.
'We are also committed to pursuing enforcement action where we can, to ensure that those who were at fault take full responsibility for their actions. We are determined to get to the bottom of this to find out exactly what happened - and to make sure it doesn't happen again," Brown said.
Scandal causes U.S. consumers to question supply
Some fear that a similar horse meat situation could unfold in the U.S., but Davey Griffin, Associate Professor and Extension Meat Specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension service, says it won't.
In a Feb. 14 blog post for the American Meat Institute, Griffin says meat inspection oversight and U.S. labeling laws are strictly enforced, providing significant barriers to any questionable misbranding.
"Federal inspectors monitor products during processing, handling, and packaging to ensure that they are safe and accurately labeled," Griffin points out. "Federal inspectors have the authority to shut plants down for food safety violations, by withholding the federal inspection mark on products."
Import restrictions on EU beef and beef products due to BSE concerns are another key reason why horsemeat won't end up in U.S. supply, Griffin says. While countries that do export beef to the U.S. – like Canada or Mexico – have limited horse slaughter, the horse meat in those nations costs more than beef.
"There is no economic incentive to violate federal rules and add [horsemeat] to another product without a declaration," Griffin writes.
Griffin adds that speculations about the EU meat scandal "simply aren't rooted in the reality of the U.S. meat production system."