Fast food of a different breed
March 4, 2013
by Ivan Raconteur

It started about a month ago when a factory in Ireland announced it had found traces of equine DNA in beef patties made for export to the United Kingdom.

Since then, the Internet has been buzzing with reports of similar discoveries.

It must be somewhat disconcerting to learn that the “beef” one had for dinner was once the favorite in the 2:30 at Churchill Downs.

It might be an outrage if one were to discover someone slew Seattle Slew and ground him up to be sold as hamburger.

Some might find it unpalatable to think Seabiscuit may have ended his career in the freezer section of the grocery store.

Based on recent news reports, a lot of what is sold as beef comes from animals much more fleet of foot than contented cows.

That Philly steak sandwich we had for lunch may have been a filly steak sandwich.

This could change the definition of “fast food.”

If one hears hoofbeats when one fires up the grill, there may be a problem.

Among the recent announcements, inspectors in the Czech Republic found traces of horse meat in meatballs made for the IKEA in Sweden.

Horse meat has also been found on pizzas in Denmark, and in frozen meals in Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Some of the reports involved small amounts of horse meat, but one European company was found to be producing frozen dinners featuring “beef” lasagne that tests showed were 60 to 100 percent horse meat.

The world meat market is very complex, and the US is not isolated from international sources.

USA Today quoted a US Department of Agriculture study that said “a single pound of hamburger meat might come from 400 different cows,” which can make finding the source of the problem nearly impossible.

Bogus beef is not the only problem facing consumers.

A recent study by the non-profit environmental group, Oceana, claims about a third of all fish sold in restaurants and supermarkets may be mis-labeled.

According to reports, volunteers collected fish samples at 674 supermarkets, restaurants, and sushi counters in 21 states.

The determined 87 percent of the snapper samples were not snapper.

White tuna was mislabeled 59 percent of the time.

One of the most frequently mislabeled varieties is sushi labeled “white tuna.” A species called escolar, or snake mackerel is often substituted for white tuna, according to reports, and it can cause unpleasant gastrointestinal distress lasting several days.

That doesn’t sound like a bargain for consumers.

One-third to one-fifth of the halibut, grouper, cod, and Chilean sea bass tested were mislabeled.

Apparently, fish fraud is rampant.

It is difficult to determine where the problem originates.

According to an industry trade group, 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported.

FDA regulations prohibit the selling of one kind of fish under another name, but there is not much federal oversight.

The larger issue is not about eating horse meat or cheap fish.

People in some countries regularly consume cousins of Mr. Ed, Silver, or Secretariat, and have no qualms about doing so.

The issue is that products are not labeled accurately, so consumers have no way of knowing what they are getting.

Whether the problems are accidental or the result of deliberate fraud, it becomes more and more difficult to know what a product contains.

The farther we get from the source, and the more we rely on a worldwide commodity market of mass produced “industrial food,” the more complex the problem is likely to become.

Substituting less expensive, inferior products for rarer, more expensive products, presents an attractive option for unscrupulous suppliers.

We can assume that as long as there is a financial incentive for fraud, combined with an extremely low risk of detection, the problem will continue to grow.

It seems the best way for consumers to protect themselves from bogus burgers made from retired thoroughbreds, or mystery fish of dubious origin, is to buy locally grown or produced products whenever possible and learn as much as they can about the food they eat.

The closer we get to the source of our food, the better our chances of knowing what we are consuming will be.

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