Will that be a horse burger or a donkey burger?

Laura Brown
15 February 2013

Above: Image © Thomas R Machnitzki, Wikimedia Commons

How would you like to find out that the burger you just ate or the lasagna mom served for supper last night was made with horsemeat? Or, better yet, donkey meat?

Did you know? A donkey, or ass, is a domesticated draft animal belonging to the horse family that has the scientific name Equus africanus asinus.

An enormous horsemeat scandal has erupted all over Europe in recent weeks. People began discovering horsemeat in certain foods – mainly burgers and lasagnas - in Ireland in January. As of February 7th, at least five European countries (Ireland, Britain, Poland, France and Sweden) had food producers implicated in this latest European food scandal. By February 11th, French consumer safety authorities announced that companies in Romania, the Netherlands and Cyprus were also involved. It is believed that a law banning horses from Romanian roads, resulting in horses and donkeys going to slaughter, is responsible for the fraudulent sale of horsemeat, and possibly donkey meat, throughout the European beef market. Aside from feeling nauseous, this discovery is leaving millions of European consumers worried about their food safety and the food inspection practices that are supposed to prevent these sorts of market substitutions.

Although there are few human health risks in eating horsemeat, as opposed to beef, consumers do want to know that the food they buy actually contains what the label says they are buying. Also, having grown up reading about Black Beauty and Eeyore, the thought of eating horsemeat or donkey meat is quite disgusting to many people, especially in the United Kingdom where this is not a common practice and horses are much loved!

Hamburger (we hope)The big issue at play here is one of food fraud. DNA barcoding, a technique developed in Canada, was the scientific tool used to identify the unknown species in the mislabeled meat-based products. The Irish Foods Standards Agency (FSA) analyzed lasagnas from one company where it was found that specific products contained between 60% to 100% horsemeat. The FSA has now declared that because of the scale of the contamination and meat substitution it is the result of deliberate fraud or criminal activity.

So should we worry about the contents of our burgers in Canada? Fortunately, we can rest easy, thanks to quick action on the part of the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, located at The University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO). Reacting to the reports of the horsemeat scandal in Europe, the Centre tested hamburgers from 15 different sources and found that none of them contained horsemeat – just 100 % beef! This is great news for Canadian consumers!

Did you know? DNA barcoding allows scientists to match small DNA sequences from unknown specimens to those obtained from known reference specimens, which can aid in identifying incidents of meat substitution.

Scientific evidence from DNA barcoding has helped pinpoint the tip of the iceberg in this Europe-wide food fraud case that will surely have some serious and long-term societal impacts.

What will be the ultimate consequences of an incident of food fraud of this magnitude? For the companies identified with distributing the mislabeled products, it means a food recall of an enormous scale. Over 200 million burgers have been recalled so far, as well as most lasagna food lines carried across Europe. Some of the food processing companies and meat distributors will undoubtedly suffer financial losses and perhaps bankruptcy. There will be an ongoing criminal investigation of the sources and conspirators of any fraudulent meat substitution activity, with potential legal actions to follow. The government agencies regulating food safety and inspection in each country will have to examine the situation closely and determine how the policies and procedures within their organizations may have led to this food supply chain contamination. The European Union commission will be involved because the sale of mislabeled meat between the UK and European borders makes this an international trade issue as well. There is also the huge consequence of losing consumer trust in food quality and the food delivery system. Will consumers avoid eating beef? Will more people decide to become vegetarian? How would you react?

Learn More

Canadian Burgers All Beef, U of G Researchers Find (February 13, 2013)

http://www.uoguelph.ca/news/2013/02/canadian_burger.html Horsemeat found in British supermarkets 'may be donkey' (February 10, 2013)

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/horsemeat-found-in-british-supermarkets-may-be-donkey-8489030.html Horse Meat in Food Stirs a Furor in the British Isles (February 8, 2013)

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/09/world/europe/horse-meat-in-food-stirs-furor-in-british-isles.html?_r=1& Horses feared to turn to donkey in UK meat scandal (February 11, 2013)

http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/02/11/288416/donkey-meat-scandal-likely-in-uk/ How the horsemeat scandal unfolded (February 8, 2013)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/08/how-horsemeat-scandal-unfolded-timeline Tests reveal Findus frozen beef lasagnas contain 'up to 100 per cent horsemeat' (February 7, 2013)


Laura Brown

Laura is an Education Specialist with Let’s Talk Science. With a background in agricultural sciences and visual arts, she is interested in most everything, from pigs to Picasso! She developed her love of science and technology from her parents and teachers.

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