Horse Meat in the U.S. Food Chain? Neigh It Ain't So

Scientists have detected the presence of horse DNA in America's food supply chain. The discovery was made by researchers at Chapman University's Food Science Program in two separate studies on meat mislabeling in consumer commercial meat products sold in the United States. Co-authored by Dr. Rosalee Hellberg, a food scientist and assistant professor at Chapman's Schmid College of Science and Technology in Orange, Calif., and published in the journal Food Control, both DNA-based studies discovered products that were labeled as one species but contained other species.

One study analyzed the species found in commercial ground meat products sold by retailers in the United States, including local supermarkets and online specialty meat distributors. The researchers found that out of 48 meat samples tested, 10 were mislabeled. Of those 10, nine were found to contain additional species. Even more worrisome is the fact that horse meat, which is illegal to sell in the U.S. commercial market, was detected in two of the samples.

"We always suspected and now there is proof," the non-profit Equine Welfare Alliance wrote in an email, about the discovery of horse DNA in the food chain.

Even though eating horses is taboo in the U.S., American horses are regularly eaten by some consumers in the European Union. According to the Humane Society of the United States, which is working to expose the sickening practice of "killer buyers" in the U.S:

Each year, more than 100,000 American horses — working, racing and companion horses and even children’s ponies — are inhumanely transported long distances in cramped trailers without food, water or rest. Then they are brutally slaughtered, and their meat is shipped overseas for human consumption. The majority of these horses are young, healthy animals who could have led productive lives with loving owners if they’d been given the chance.

The Safeguard American Food Exports Act of 2015 (HR 1942), introduced in April by Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH-1), would prohibit the sale or transport of horses, donkeys and mules for the purpose of consumption. The SAFE Act also seeks to establish recognition by the U.S. Congress that horses are not intended for human consumption. But as Hellberg and her colleagues have demonstrated, not all horse meat leaves the U.S. Some of it ends up on the plates of unsuspecting American consumers.

Hellberg and the co-author of the first study, Chapman University graduate research assistant Dawn Kane, suggested that the mislabeling they detected "appears to be due to either intentional mixing of lower-cost meat species into higher cost products or unintentional mixing of meat species due to cross-contamination during processing."

Following the discovery, Habitat for Horses, a horse rescue and sanctuary in Manvel, Texas, offered harsh criticism of food companies and nation's food system:

There are few things worse than eating an animal you love, except when you do it because you were lied to by horse-hating, money-grubbing companies who will do anything to make an extra buck. Any company or organization that promotes the slaughter of horses, any company that is involved in the storage, handling and transportation of horses to slaughter and any Federal Office of Whatever that turns a blind eye to the slaughter of horses is at fault for the complete corruption of our food supply.

The second study, conducted with research assistants Charles A. Quinto and Rebecca Tinoco, looked at the $39-billion game meat industry. As in the other study, the researchers used DNA barcoding to analyze 54 game meat products collected from various U.S.-based online retail sources. Of these 54 samples, 22 different types of game meat were represented based on the product label. The researchers found 10 products (18.5 percent of samples) to be potentially mislabeled.

Two products labeled as bison and one labeled as yak were identified as domestic cattle. “This distributor sells ground beef products for US $22.00/kg compared to their yak burgers which retail for US $43.98/kg," said the researchers. "This is a case where economic gain is a likely cause of mislabeling, as substituting the lower-cost beef for yak can result in a two-fold profit for the company."

"Consumers rely on the accuracy of food labeling to help them make informed food choices for purchase, whether it be for religious purposes (some religions do not permit the consumption of pork), organic and fair trade options, or allergy concerns," noted Kane on her LinkedIn page. "However, previous market studies in Mexico, Turkey and South Africa have reported mislabeling rates of approximately 20-70 percent for a variety of meat products, including sausage, ground meat, meatballs, deli meats and dried meats."

The mislabeling included a product labeled black bear that was actually American beaver, and a product labeled pheasant that was actually helmeted guineafowl. The researchers found five products containing the DNA of near threatened (bison) or vulnerable (lion) species, all correctly labeled and legally sold.

"Although extensive meat species testing has been carried out in Europe in light of the 2013 horse meat scandal, there has been limited research carried out on this topic in the United States," Rosalee Hellberg said. "To our knowledge, the most recent U.S. meat survey was published in 1995."

"Think about all those other items you purchased in the store that say they contain chicken or 100% Angus Beef," said Habitat for Horses. "Do we continue to close our eyes and believe what’s written on the package? Do we really trust our food inspection system? The trust is gone."


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