What began as a routine DNA inspection in Ireland a month ago has triggered what European food officials now fear is a widespread scandal -- horse meat is showing up in alarming rates in countries where it is has always been most taboo to eat the regal animals. One sample burger, it has been confirmed, contained as much as one-third of mankind's most noble steed and it is believed 28 companies in 13 countries may be involved in a massive fraud.
Since the gruesome discovery in Ireland, there were three arrests in Great Britain on Thursday and health officials believe that may just be the tip of the iceberg; one French company reportedly made profits of almost $750,000 over the past six months by substituting horse for beef to retailers.
This weekend the European Union has called for extensive DNA testing as people are shocked by what appears to be a disgusting food fraud.
Ironically, this time last year a misguided Tennessee lawmaker, Andy Holt (R-Dresden), tried to get a bill passed through the legislature to allow slaughterhouses in the state but a groundswell of fiery public opinion drowned out the farmer's efforts to keep horses from being transported to Canada, where the meat is sold to mostly Asian markets.
There are still some in Tennessee who haven't given up on the idea, especially when the state is still under worldwide scrutiny for horse abuse. The "Big Lick" faction of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, centered in Shelbyville, has caused federal legislation to be introduced that would severely punish those who sadistically torture and maim animals for the so-called "Big Lick," an unnatural gait that brings a blue ribbon.
Yet today the loudest outcry is resounding in Europe where -- believe it or not -- eating horse is unthinkable in England while it is now sold as a delicacy at some restaurants in nearby France. The fraud, obviously, is that horse meat is being secretly ground into sausages and beef at the total surprise of the beef buyers. Cyprus, the Netherlands, Romania and other countries are finding horse meat in the groceries and -- while it is hardly toxic -- the illicit meat is now being discarded and destroyed.
In 2007 slaughtering horses was abandoned in the United States but, in November of 2011, Congress quietly lifted the ban. Today there are only a few locations where horses are slaughtered in the U.S. for what is thought to be a $100-billion global business. "There are certain communities that have considered (reviving horse slaughter,") said ASPCA spokesperson Nancy Perry, "but the vast amount of Americans -- 80 percent - oppose the practice," she told NBC News.
According to scientific experts, horse meat is actually high in protein and less fatty than beef, the taste akin to deer meat. The trouble is choking it down. Horses have played a key part in the nation's history and the immense love for the animals was most recently seen when the Tennessee Walking Horse industry was vandalized after it was revealed a segment of owners and trainers have sored and tortured the animals for over 40 years.
After World War II some U.S. citizens ate horse meat as a necessity, causing Republican detractors to label President Truman as "Horsemeat Harry" before the revolting practice was stopped. Canadian buyers are regularly seen in the Southeastern U.S., buying horses at auctions and then trucking the animals to Canada to be processed. In today's tough economy, some owners can't afford to keep their horses.
But nobody -- especially a horse owner -- wants to knowingly send their animals to slaughterhouses. When a bill was before the Tennessee Legislature last spring, Leighann McCollum of the Humane Society of the United States was quoted, "Horse slaughter plants have a very long history of polluting the environment, of animal cuelty, of devaluing property and generally running roughshod over rural communities," she told the Nashville Tennessean.
"The bill (proposed by Rep. Holt last year) is not about the horse-slaughter debate -- it's about Tennesseans' constitutional right to have access to the courthouse. This bill closes courts to everyone except the wealthy." she said.
Holt maintained he filed the bill last year to "create jobs" but now he is seeing -- along with the rest of the world -- that the European countries are furious at the tainted food that has invaded their butcher shops. Ray Ellard, an authority for food safety in Ireland, explained, "We set out to do something fairly simple" and said he had no idea the tests were "goiing to end up where it is today."
"But we're glad in one way," he told an NBS correspondent. "Systems will all improve and the potential for defrauding people will be a lot less. We're glad that has happened, but we've had a nervous few days, I can tell you."