It doesn't matter how you dice it, the discovery of horsemeat in European meat products raises some awkward questions for the global meat industry.
First of all, what's wrong with horsemeat? On the surface, nothing, except many of us would prefer not to eat it. The problem is, people weren't given the choice. In fact, they were lied to by food-industry labels that said one thing and delivered another. This issue is first and foremost about trust and truth in labelling, not food safety.
Or is it? Consumers are assured there is a system of documentation and auditing in place to ensure horses treated with the drug phenylbutazone, a commonly used anti-inflammatory known as bute, do not enter the food supply. But French authorities confirmed in media reports recently that meat from three horses contaminated with the drug slipped through their safety net.
After all, if processors are lying about the content of beef products, why should consumers presume horse traders will be honest about bute use, especially when it lowers the value of their animals?
One of the defences offered by companies whose products tested positive for horse DNA was that it was accidental, possibly a result of cross-contamination in factories that handle both horses and cattle.
The "oh-my-gosh-we've been duped" defence, and the "oh-maybe-it-was-an-accident" defence are equally alarming to the consumer.
If food companies don't know what they are buying, how can the consumer trust what they are making? And if processors can't get the bits of dead horse out of equipment before cutting up cattle, what else can't they clean up?
How long has this been going on anyway? The widespread nature of the contamination would suggest mixing species has been a common practice, and not just in Europe.
South African researchers recently found soya, donkey, goat, water buffalo and plant material in minced meat products, none of which was listed on the labels.
"Our study confirms that the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food-labelling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts," said study co-author Louw Hoffman in a Reuters report.
IKEA pulled its meatballs from stores in 21 countries -- North America, Australia and Japan excluded -- after finding horse DNA.
The animal industry routinely looks to science to support its credibility, but there is nothing scientific about the public's rejection of horsemeat. It's a lean source of protein that apparently tastes a lot like beef.
People's aversion to horsemeat is emotional, and emotion is a powerful force in the marketplace.
Sales of frozen meat dishes in Europe have reportedly collapsed in the wake of this scandal and short-term prospects for their recovery appear slim. British retail giant Tesco says it will now be sourcing its meat products more locally so it can keep a closer eye on suppliers.
Though the North American meat industry has not been implicated, you can bet someone is testing meat products here too to see what DNA they find, which is a scary thought.
The challenge of communicating with a public increasingly distanced from the farm has never been greater, the line between food animals and pets has never been more blurred, and the trust consumers have in the industrial food chain has never been shakier.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com.