European Horse Meat Scandal: Could it Cross the Pond?

The European horse meat controversy got bigger on Feb., 27 as Swedish do-it-yourself furniture giant Ikea halted sales of its Kottbullar frozen meatballs in three more countries: Thailand, Hong Kong, and the Dominican Republic. At the same time, the company withdrew its Wiener sausages from stores in Ireland, the U.K., France, Portugal, and Spain; it wouldn’t say whether horse meat had been detected in these products too, and in a statement called the withdrawal an “extra-precautionary measure.”

Ikea withdrew more than 1,600 pounds of meatballs from the market in 14 European countries on Feb. 25, after testing found some meatballs labeled as pork and beef to contain traces of horse meat. (Subsequent testing at the Swedish family farm, Dafgaard, that supplies Ikea’s meatballs in Europe has revealed that some of the adulterated samples contained between .5 percent to 10 percent horse meat.) But so far, the company has said it has no plans to halt sales of the meatballs in the U.S.—and food safety experts say that fans of build-it-yourself furniture and tasty meatballs in this country shouldn’t fret.

“Could horse meat have made it into beef or pork products sold here? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s highly unlikely,” says Robert Buchanan, PhD, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Food Safety and Security Systems. “The USDA is pretty strict about any kind of imported meat.” The USDA has reported that the U.S. imports no beef from any of the European countries where the horse meat has cropped up; Ikea’s U.S. stores get their meatballs from North American suppliers.

There’s nothing uniquely hazardous or inedible about horse meat; indeed, it’s a popular dish in many other countries. The problem, according to Dr. Buchanan, is not one of food safety, but of labeling. “It’s the impression that producers are trying to put something over on their customers with mislabeling,” he says. “People already don’t trust the food industry, and this doesn’t help.”

But so far Dr. Buchanan says Ikea and other companies involved in the horse meat scandal have conducted themselves well. “How the horse meat got mixed in with the beef and pork, we don’t know—but if you have a new employee who doesn’t know what horse meat versus beef looks like, it’s easy to get them mixed up. It’s not like it’s in the shape of horses! Once this came out, I can’t fault how anyone has responded to it.”


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