Headlines: from Fishy Flakes to Horse Hysteria

A flurry of Flourishing Fish Fraud headlines alerted American consumers that 87% of snapper was not snapper and 59% of white tuna was not tuna. Fishy fakes common in restaurants, wrote USA Today.

While no reports of illness surfaced, eating escolar sold as tuna in sushi bars might cause rather distressing side effects. But even when health risks are minimal, consumers have to get what they pay for. “If you’re ordering steak, you would never be served horse meat but you can easily be ordering snapper and get tilapia or Vietnamese catfish,” Oceana’s Dr. Michael Hirshfield told The New York Times in 2011. But in 2013, if you ordered a beef burger in Ireland, you may have been served a mix of horse and beef.

The Horse meat in hamburgers headlines were upsetting pretty much everyone in Europe, even the French. Horse meat, presumed from Poland or Romania showed up in Swedish meatballs sold in Britain. “At the last count, something like 19 countries were involved either in the supply chain or in uncovering tainted products,” Chris Elliott, the director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, told the New York Times.

The Guardian posts an interactive map. A sample here:

Who buys horse meat? European imports, one of the facets of The Guardian's interactive map.

Who buys horse meat? European imports, one of the facets of The Guardian’s interactive map.

To find out how Romanian workhorses reach the dinner plate, Reuters reporters ventured to CarmOlimp slaughterhouse in Ucea de Jos. The plant mostly processes pork, but poor peasants sell their old horses for $0.50/lb. Build with EU loans, this plant was cleared of any mislabeling charges. But horse meat from elsewhere in Romania found roundabout ways to British and French dinner tables.

Shady trading along the way involved the Meat Mafia from Cyprus; a Dutch company called Draap, which spelled backwards is paard or Dutch for horse; a horse lover and polo player, former Goldman Sachs guy now a financier, straight out of central casting; a convicted Russian arms smuggler of Ukrainian origins, and a French company that supplied meat to a Luxembourg factory.

‘Mystery meat’ takes on a whole new meaning, writes science blogger Christie Wilcox.

How the horse became “beef” remains shrouded. Suffering and disease lurk behind European horse meat trade, writes the UK-based World Horse Welfare on their blog. Even though horse slaughterhouses do not operate in USA today, Forbes’ Vickery Eckhoff found Five Reasons Why Burger King’s Horse Meat Scandal Could Happen Here.

Since no one got sick except perhaps of headline alliterations, the publicity led to curiosity: Britons give horse a try as scandal piques interest. “While people are putting horse into their shopping cart on the website they are also putting in things like zebra, llama and alpaca,” Paul Webb, director Britain’s Exotic Meats, tells Reuters. Horsemeat scandal triggers 15% rise in sales for France’s equine butchers, reports The Guardian.

When consumers make informed choices, substitutions may lead to culinary explorations. Seafood substitutions snuck in our foodie vocabulary to improve our health and save endangered species. Substituting foods to help feed humanity and save the earth may become a trendy green consumer choice–why not try insect burgers? Why not choose pasture-raised beef over feedlot-confined cows?

Or, just say no to meat: “No more excuses, go vegetarian,” writes John Harris for The Guardian.

So, how do they find horse meat in hamburgers? Like crime scene investigations on TV, high-tech DNA-testing traces the origins of what we eat. The method that uncovered the horse meat contamination, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) analysis, is credited to Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester, reports treehugger.

DNA testing also finds The Real maccoyii amongst the fake tuna, and helps keep the critically endangered southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii ) off on the menu. While complex, testing has become easier and cheaper. Two New York teenagers who loved sushi may have been the first ones to check for mislabeling using barcode DNA testing in 2008. Relatively affordable high-tech will help the F.D.A. police food on a larger scale than previously possible. The agency purchased gene sequencing equipment, reports The New York Times. FDA inspectors can test fish fillets and identify the species by comparing results with 8,000 varieties of fish gene sequences available at The International Barcode of Life Project.

Eventually the horsemeat hysteria headlines reflected the bigger picture. Who is responsible for shaping our food systems? Horse meat – the hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault, writes The Making Progress Blues blog.

While no one disputes the need to curb fraud, the larger picture ranges from British politics to speculations over the recipe for a divided Europe: add horse and stir; to the need for government oversight, the history of broken taboos and ethics of eating all kinds of animals including dogs, as practiced in some cultures.

Jezebel’s Lindy West writes, “A cute baby animal is a cute baby animal, and in the grand scheme of things—our vast, lonely universe that I happen to believe is meaningless anyway—this sacred difference between a horse and a cow is just a combo of semantics and cultural elitism.”

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Notes
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Oceana.org, recent research revealed seafood fraud

Monterey Bay Aquarium has been my go-to place of a list of fish that we can eat while trying to preserve a healthy ocean: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

The European trade in horse meat: www.guardian.co.uk/uk/datablog/interactive/2013/feb/15/europe-trade-horsemeat-map-interactive

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