This week's discovery that some burgers sold in UK supermarkets contain up to 29 per cent horse meat was met with a combination of concerns about the labelling and sourcing of food, and jokes about the burgers' 'Shergar content'. But the fact that people are inadvertently eating horse meat isn't the only worrying part of the finding; an additional concern is the provenance of the meat.
In many equine-consuming countries, horses are bred specifically for their meat, in the same way that livestock are in the UK. If you go to Auchan in Calais and pick up a horse steak from the 'boucherie' section, then your meat should be perfectly edible and, I've been informed, delicious. As a wimpy horse-lover, I'm more than happy to take their word for it. However, the horse meat in British burgers might not have such a reliable source. Initially, it was thought that the horse DNA found in the burgers could have been from ingredients imported from Europe, but over the weekend the company who produced the burgers confirmed that they hadn't used imported meat in the affected burgers. Although the provenance of the meat is yet to be identified, the meat could be far less palatable than horse meat found on the continent.
In 2012 Defra withdrew funding from, and thereby forced the closure of, the National Equine Database, which held the passport details of every horse in the United Kingdom. A horse's passport contains details of all drugs ever administered to that horse, some of which could leave the horse flesh unfit for human consumption. But the loss of the database has meant that it could now be possible for a horse to have two passports - one with the correct details of its medical history, and one which appears to be 'clean' when the horse is ready to be slaughtered.
Ireland has the same problem. In May 2012 the Sunday Times reported that Irish horses with forged passports were stopped en route to an English abattoir, with the article stating that 'hundreds [of horses] are being sold to abattoirs using forged passports'.
The recession has had a devastating effect on the UK horse industry, with thousands of horses being abandoned as their owners can no longer afford to keep them. When a horse with a drug-free passport can be sold as meat for £300, is it any wonder that every loophole available is being taken advantage of?