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Biological Chemistry


Horse Meat At Home, In The Lab, And In Debate

by Alexander H. Tullo
April 29, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 17


Credit: Shutterstock
Meatballs: Just like Dad used to make.
A plate of meatballs and noodles. A fork hovers over the plate with meatball on the tines.
Credit: Shutterstock
Meatballs: Just like Dad used to make.

The recent uproar over the adulteration of processed “beef” products in Europe—where scientists detected horse meat in Ikea Swedish meatballs and Burger King burgers—made me recall an incident from my youth.

My family was watching a documentary on 1970s-era bicycle racing. In one scene, French or Belgian cyclists were dining on iron-rich horse steaks. As the racers were cutting up the disturbingly rare pieces of meat, I gasped. “I would never eat horse!”

“You have,” my father responded. He explained that horse is a delicacy in Puglia, the Italian region of my family’s heritage. Then he told us that he would have an employee of his acquire horse meat for him somewhere in New Jersey. Dad served it to us as steak.

I might have been appalled. Instead, I was moved that he had arranged a covert operation to keep with a centuries-old tradition. When I heard about the European scandal, part of me wondered if eating horse was worse than eating any other kind of meat.

The English-speaking world thinks differently than continental Europe, though. And animal rights groups and others have raised health concerns about horse meat. Some worry that phenylbutazone could enter the food supply. “Bute,” as it is known, is a painkiller used on horses that is toxic to humans.

In mid-January, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) released the findings of its study on beef products. Two labs hired by FSAI employed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis, which amplifies extracted DNA strands in samples to detectable levels. FSAI used the technique previously to root out counterfeit cod.

Equine DNA was found in 10 of the 27 beef burger products. For the most part, the horse meat was found in relatively low levels—less than a fraction of a percent—pointing to contamination at the processing plant. However, in one sample, a brand of beef burgers available at retailer Tesco, 29% of the DNA found came from horses.

Raymond Ellard, director of consumer protection for FSAI, says his organization must always conceive of new questions about the food supply. “If you’re in the food control business, you have to think a bit like a criminal,” he says. “You have to think where there are opportunities to make money and turn your attention there.”

But some good will come of the case, Ellard notes. “DNA testing as a matter of course will begin in the processed food sector,” he says. European authorities have already followed up by testing meat across the continent. They found horse meat in nearly 5% of the thousands of samples tested.

Consumption of horse meat is legal in the U.S., even though domestic slaughter has been prohibited, albeit indirectly, for a few years. In 2005, Congress banned funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect horses used for food. Without inspections, slaughterhouses wound down operations by 2007.

Credit: Charles Platiau/Reuters/Newscom
Open for business: Butcher shops in Paris specialize in horse meat.
Some butchers in France specialize in horse meat. They often are decorated with brightly-colored horse heads, akin to a barber pole, like the one shown here. Boucherie Chavaline - viande extra, reads the sign.
Credit: Charles Platiau/Reuters/Newscom
Open for business: Butcher shops in Paris specialize in horse meat.

A debate has been raging about whether to allow them to start up again. According to A. Blair Dunn, the lawyer for New Mexico firm Valley Meat, which is planning to slaughter horses for their meat, the same horses that would have been killed domestically have been shipped to Canada and Mexico to be used for meat there.

USDA had its horse inspection funding reinstituted in 2011. But the agency still hasn’t issued grants of inspection, which would allow horse meat companies to set up shop.

Animal rights groups, such as the Humane Society of the U.S., oppose horse meat. At the same time, the Obama Administration and Congress are weighing whether to reinstate the prohibition.

Alex Tullo wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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