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On Monday, Ireland’s Agriculture Department announced that DNA testing had revealed that Polish meat labeled as beef and sold to Rangeland Foods, a frozen-burger producer in Ireland, contained up to 75 percent horse meat.
On Tuesday, a second frozen-meat supplier, Freeza Meats in Northern Ireland, announced that 80 percent horse meat had been detected in a batch of quarantined Polish “beef” that the company never used because its packaging and labeling seemed questionable. These are just the latest developments in a bizarre, month-long investigation by Agriculture Department and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) into the mysterious flow of horse meat in Ireland’s beef supply, which is one of Ireland’s top agricultural exports, bringing in about $2.5 billion a year.
In early January, the FSAI conducted random DNA testing on beef products from several supermarkets and further vendors—a routine technique it uses to ensure food quality—and found that several contained portions of horse and pig meat. One “value range” beef patty sold at a Tesco (TESO) supermarket was found to contain 29 percent horse meat. Authorities eventually traced the patty back to Silvercrest Foods, a frozen meat supplier in Ireland that’s owned by ABP Foods. Tesco dropped Silvercrest as a supplier, and grocery chains such as Aldi and Co-op quickly followed suit. Burger King (BKW), whose British and Irish locations have sometimes used Silvercrest meat, announced last week that it had found traces of horse DNA in some burgers. It, too, has stopped using Silvercrest as a supplier.
Meanwhile, Irish food-safety authorities are continuing to investigate how horse meat entered the production chain. Silvercrest and Rangeland reportedly bought the mislabeled meat from at least two Irish and British importers, but whether those importers knowingly mislabeled the meat, or they were duped, is still unclear. “Somebody, someplace, is drip-feeding horse meat into the burger-manufacturing industry,” Alan Reilly, chief executive of FSAI, told the Associated Press, saying, “We don’t know yet exactly where this is happening.”
Burger patties are often made with a mixture of meat that comes from different cows via several different suppliers. In Europe, meat and other goods are allowed to move freely among EU member states; Irish law says that companies are responsible for monitoring and sourcing their ingredients from EU-based suppliers. The Department of Agriculture and the FSAI try to keep them in check—hence the random DNA testing that unveiled the presence of horse meat—but it’s an imperfect system.
Horse meat is not inherently unsafe to eat. In fact, it’s leaner than beef. The U.S. legalized the slaughtering of horses for human consumption in 2011, but because Americans are emotionally attached to the animals, most of that meat is sold overseas. (Last November, New York restaurant M. Wells Dinette abandoned plans to serve horse tartare after its chef received personal threats.) Ireland also allows horse slaughtering, too—but again, much of it is exported. Now it seems to have been unknowingly imported as well.