A Nation's Stomach Churns

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Jones

The real scandal of Britain's horsemeat fiasco.

In one of the greatest episodes of South Park, the show's chief protagonist, Eric Cartman, takes revenge on a bully named Scott Tenorman by making him eat chili con carne concocted from the flesh of his parents. When Tenorman learns of his error, he retches and begins to sob. Cartman leaps onto the table and licks the boy's face, drinking what he calls the "tears of unfathomable sadness." That's the end of the show.

For the past month consumers in the U.K. have been dealing with the queasy realization that we have, in our way, been Scott Tenormanned. So-called beef products--burgers, meatballs, lasagne--on sale in many supermarket chains have been found to contain horsemeat. And not just a bit of horsemeat. The scale ranges from beefburgers (Note to Americans: a beefburger is the British word for a hamburger, on the grounds that it is made from beef. Yeah. Go figure) containing 29 percent horse, which were found on sale in Tesco, to the now infamous Findus beef lasagne--a popular microwave dinner--which contained no beef at all. One hundred percent equine DNA: pure Seabiscuit.

We don't eat horse here. The U.K. may be famous for its bad food; we may have produced such culinary abominations as deep-fried Mars bars and haggis pizza. But a Brit would no sooner eat a nag than a dog. We have our pride. Not eating horseflesh is one of the main ways in which we differentiate ourselves from barbarian races like the French.

And yet, well, we have been eating it. In countries all across Europe, adulterated products are being withdrawn from sale. In Britain, horsemeat has been found in products sold by mass-market supermarkets Iceland, Tesco, Co-Op, Aldi, and Lidl; fast-food chain Burger King; and Findus (rhymes with cinders), a pan-European brand of low-cost ready-meals with an annual turnover of $1.7 billion. Since the scandal broke, British supermarkets have pulled more than 10 million beefburgers from sale. This week Tesco withdrew a spaghetti dish that contained 60 percent horsemeat. Findus has pulled 400,000 lasagne. Aldi has withdrawn frozen lasagne and spaghetti bolognese. It has been suggested that horsemeat may have been on sale in the U.K. for up to a year.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA)--the body established in the 1990s to make sure things like this don't happen--has asked retailers and suppliers to test their beef for traces of horse and report back by February 15. It is very likely that these tests will show the problem is widespread, particularly in cheap processed food. Schools, hospitals, pubs, kebab shops, hotels, and care homes--anyone with a large catering contract, basically--may find themselves drawn into the scandal. If you haven't eaten horse, you're either rich, vegetarian, or lucky.

The horsemeat that has been found so far entered the U.K. from several sources. There's Comigel, a French exporter of frozen meals with a factory in Luxembourg that made products for Findus, Tesco, and Aldi in the U.K., as well as retailers and caterers in around 15 other countries. Then there's ABP Food Group, an Irish company whose subsidiaries include the Silvercrest production plant in the Republic of Ireland and a sister firm, Dalepak, based in Yorkshire, England, both of which supplied British supermarkets with frozen burgers.

But that is only the beginning. Behind these manufacturing companies lie networks of suppliers such as Spanghero, a French firm that supplied Comigel with meat it had bought from Romanian slaughterhouses via traders in Cyprus and the Netherlands. Meat reached Silvercrest via the Irish broker McAdam Foods, which filled orders from a Danish-owned importer called Flexi Foods, based in the northern English town of Hull. And further back? Abattoirs and meat processing plants based all over Europe, from England and France to Poland and Romania.

Somewhere in this chain, someone has been committing food fraud, and each link in the chain is blaming the one behind it. …