The trail of hoofprints leading to the Findus lasagna begins in 2007 in Romania. In an effort to cut the number of horse-related traffic accidents and appease the EU, Romania banned the use of donkey- and horse-drawn carts on main roads. The result: a sudden surplus of horses that were transformed from economic asset to resource drain. Some were abandoned and some were cashed in at auction by their owners, heading south for butchery so that they could have the distinction of becoming salami that was "Made in Italy".
Horses are physically ill adapted for long-distance transportation, having a high center of gravity (leading to falls) and being more prone to dehydration than their bovine fellow travelers. The campaign for meat horses to travel "on the hook and not on the hoof" is now over a century old, but although the European Parliament voted in late 2012 to introduce new welfare restrictions, the European Commission seems reluctant to change current laws. Romanian horses were among the most traveled in the most heinous conditions, but had a reprieve in 2010 when the EU stepped in to restrict their export because equine infectious anemia, or "Horse AIDS," was endemic in the country. They were killed at home instead.
The meat was purchased at ?2 ($2.68) a kilo by a Cyprus-based firm called Draap Trading Ltd and sold to French food processors Spanghero and Comigel, who wittingly or unwittingly transformed it into frozen dinners labeled as containing beef. Draap, as several commentators have pointed out, is simply the Dutch word for horse, spelled in reverse. Neither Comigel nor Spanghero were deterred by the fact that Draap's director, Jan Fasen, was tried on charges of fraud in 2012 for passing off horse flesh from South America as beef from Germany and Holland.
From Spanghero and Comigel, the well-traveled equine DNA was trucked to the British and European supermarket system and on to a cash-strapped, thrifty public. This deception was not caught by authorities in the United Kingdom until the products had been on sale for months because French processing plants go uninspected by the British Food Standards Agency. In the name of saving money, the coalition government split the FSA's duties between other ministries, and left no inspections of processing plants. That is the job of the supermarkets themselves and also the trading standards departments of British local authorities. Once more, austerity plays handmaiden: Trading standards budgets have nosedived in recent years.
Meanwhile, in an irony that would have made Saint-Hilaire boggle, the scandal has introduced the British public to the country's own unsavory horsemeat industry, which has doubled its intake of animals since 2009. Horsemeat may not be in vogue to the point that it is featured by British supermarkets as a special offer of the week, but the business is growing. The industry has a dark side, too: Herds are often raised in poor conditions with no health checks or concern for their welfare before they are ultimately sold to the slaughterhouse. The campaigning charity Equine Market Watch says that every week horses are sold with minimal official supervision with open wounds, communicable diseases and other visible signs of neglect. From the markets they are either shipped overseas as "riding animals", thus circumventing regulations on their route to becoming a ready meal or handbag, or killed in the UK.