The horsemeat scandal in Europe has received much media attention over the past few weeks and details around the story still continue to unfold.
There are still many unknown aspects to the situation, but this incident of economically motivated adulteration (EMA), or “food fraud”, is notable for its scale and provides yet another example of how globalized and complex our food supply chains are. It also illustrates how EMA occurs and why it can be so difficult to prevent.
For EMA to occur there must be a perpetrator and an incentive, combined with a feasible method for committing the fraud and vulnerabilities in our quality assurance/regulatory systems for food that allow it to persist undetected.
While the incentive for EMA is always economic gain, in the case of horsemeat substitution there were additional contributing factors.
Last year, a change in the interpretation of a meat regulation resulted in less raw material available for the production of ground beef. This may have resulted in the sourcing of meat from alternate sources and more distant suppliers. Supply pressures have preceded a number of EMA incidents, including melamine adulteration of dairy products in China and diethylene glycol adulteration of wines in Austria.
Horse meat was a clever choice for addition to ground beef because, in addition to being less expensive, once meat is ground it is difficult to determine the species without DNA identification techniques.
So-called “bulking up” of ground meat products is not a new phenomenon. In fact, some readers might recall when a food supplier to schools in 10 states in the U.S. was fined for putting up to 15 percent filler into ground beef.
The perpetrators of this particular horsemeat substitution have not been definitively identified, but there is widespread suspicion of organized crime involvement.
The production and sale of fraudulent food can apparently be very lucrative. Organized crime groups were previously involved in the production and sale of millions of dollars of fraudulent butter in the EU. Often, EMA occurs on a more localized scale, such as retail-level seafood substitution in grocery stores and restaurants.
Quality assurance and regulatory systems for food are generally designed to protect against known and foreseeable hazards.
Ground beef was not routinely tested for the presence of horsemeat because it was not an expected adulterant. Because analytical methods for identifying adulterants in food can be expensive and are often tailored toward specific known adulterants, unexpected or novel adulterants can be particularly difficult to detect.
The good news for U.S. consumers is that widespread adulteration of ground beef supplies with horse meat is unlikely to happen in the U.S. However, as long as the incentive for profit exists, perpetrators will continue to look for ways to sell fraudulent products.
Note: This post first appeared on the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense blog.