By: Davey Griffin, Ph.D.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, there is a good chance you heard something about horse meat being added to burgers or processed products in the UK. Some bloggers have posed the alarming question “Could this happen here?”  As an academic who studies meat processing and production in the U.S., I am confident that this won’t happen here.  Here are the reasons why:

1)      Horses aren’t currently slaughtered in the U.S.

Currently, there is not a single horse slaughter plant operating in the U.S.  Plants have operated in the past, but they exported horse meat to countries such as France, where “chevre” is highly prized.  There is little demand for horse meat in the U.S. so there is no incentive for a horse slaughter plant to sell the meat domestically.

2)      No other industry has the level of oversight of the meat industry in the U.S.

Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, meat plants in the U.S. cannot operate without an inspector present.  In large slaughter plants, more than two dozen inspectors may be present in a given day.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and its approximately 9,000 employees inspect about 6,300 establishments producing meat, poultry and egg products.  Federal inspectors monitor products during processing, handling, and packaging to ensure that they are safe and accurately labeled.  Federal inspectors have the authority to shut plants down for food safety violations, by withholding the federal inspection mark on products.  Companies under federal inspection apply the USDA mark to all products and that mark contains an establishment number, which indicates the facility that produced the product.  The presence of the mark indicates that the product was produced in compliance with one of the most comprehensive set of regulations applied to any industry in any country.

3)      U.S. Labeling Laws

Meat products are subject to strict labeling laws that are enforced by inspectors.  Labels must accurately reflect what is in the product or it is deemed to be “misbranded” and may not be sold.  This requirement helps to ensure that what consumers read on the package is what is contained in the product.  Mixing another species with ground beef and calling it ground beef is a violation of federal law and the consequences are enormous.  If an inspector has any reason to believe that an unlabeled species of meat is contained in meat product, he or she can have the product tested to determine what specie proteins are present.  If a plant is found to be in violation it would be forced to recall product if it had entered commerce and could face serious additional consequences, including a potential shutdown and criminal prosecution.  There is no benefit to misbranding a product and I can’t remember a case in recent years in which any deliberate effort to misrepresent the species of a product occurred.

4) No E.U. Beef Imports & Import Equivalence

The U.S. currently does not import beef from the European Union due to BSE restrictions, and the U.S. does not import any horse meat.  For all countries, in order for imported products to be accepted into the U.S., the country where the meat is coming from must have equivalent meat inspection programs and must comply with U.S. labeling rules. While countries such as Canada and Mexico have some limited horse slaughter, the horse meat in those nations currently costs more than beef so there is no economic incentive to violate federal rules and add it to another product without a declaration. If there was concern about imported product, U.S. inspectors would test it to determine the species proteins present.

5)      Economic Sense

There are a host of economic reasons why it wouldn’t make sense for a U.S. company to include horse meat in ground beef.  With no plants operating in the U.S., horse meat obtained through imports would be cost prohibitive and no market exists for the product.  In Europe, where horse meat is consumed, it would be more readily accessible.  Even in Europe, the recent events are extremely unusual despite the publicity that is currently being generated.  In fact, it’s the widespread publicity that incentivizes doing the right thing to maintain the consumers’ trust.  Meat companies know this.

Speculations about events like the current scandal in Europe may make attention-grabbing headlines, but they simply aren’t rooted in the reality of the U.S. meat production system and the comprehensive inspection system that oversees it every day.

Davey Griffin is an  Associate Professor and Extension Meat Specialist at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M University and a member of the American Meat Science Association.

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