European Horse Meat Scandal Not Likely to Happen in U.S.

Here's a look at what stands between you and a surprise horseburger.

ByABC News
February 14, 2013, 5:35 PM

Feb. 15, 2013— -- Europeans were horrified to learn that their frozen processed beef products -- including lasagna and hamburger -- tested positive for horse meat, but experts said it was unlikely that horsemeat could ever make it onto plates on this side of the Atlantic.

The United States no longer slaughters horses or imports horse meat from other countries, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman told In addition, none of the companies or countries that recalled beef in connection to the labeling scandal exports beef to the United States.

"It's difficult to say that it could never happen here, but it's a lot less likely," said William Hallman, the director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. "The bottom line is that no horse meat is legally being slaughtered for commerce right now in the United States."

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced on Jan. 15 that its meat labeling investigation of 27 hamburger products (which were supposed to contain only beef) revealed that 37 percent of them tested positive for horse DNA, and 85 percent tested positive for pig DNA.

But no one seems upset about the mislabeled pig meat.

"Largely, it's not a food-safety issue," Hallman said. "It's that people expected one thing and got another. What they got is culturally inappropriate for a lot of people."

On Thursday, British police arrested three men on suspicion of fraud as part of what is fast becoming a continent-wide scandal, according to the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom. Earlier that same day, the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency announced that eight of 203 horse carcasses intended for consumption contained phenylbutazone, or bute, a painkiller that is "not allowed to enter the food chain."

The U.K. Department of Health's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, released a statement to address the bute revelation. She said it presented a low health risk and was even prescribed to some patients who have severe arthritis.

"At the levels of bute that have been found, a person would have to eat 500 to 600 burgers a day that are 100 percent horse meat to get close to consuming a human's daily dose," she said in the statement. "And it passes through the system fairly quickly, so it is unlikely to build up in our bodies."

Dave Arnold, a food safety expert who directs culinary technology at the International Culinary Center in New York, said it's easy to tell the difference between horse meat and beef -- but only in a lab.

"Otherwise people would be like, "Oh this doesn't taste right,'" he said. "That's not what happened."Horse meat looks almost identical to beef, but it is somewhat leaner, Hallman said. Though the taste is slightly different, someone eating horse meat but expecting beef would probably just assume they were tasting beef.

In the United States, the Federal Meat Inspection Act mandates that a USDA inspector be present at all slaughterhouses to ensure that carcasses are not diseased, unclean or mislabeled. Its Food Safety and Inspection Service has 9,800 employees to oversee 6,200 slaughterhouses nationwide, according to a 2011 statement from Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the under secretary for food safety.

On top of that, horses haven't been slaughtered or sold for meat in the United States since 2006, when Congress banned the use of tax dollars to go to horse inspections.

Although Congress lifted its ban in 2011, slaughtering horses for consumption didn't pick up again. In addition to certain state laws banning horse slaughtering -- in states where it often used to take place -- Hallman said money hadn't been put toward restarting the horse inspections.

"Unless you have a USDA inspector in a meat processing plant, you can't sell that meat legally," he said. "That doesn't mean someone is not doing it illegally."

Arnold said that despite the USDA checks in place, fraud can still happen.

"If you shut one door, they'll find a different way," Arnold said. "Even if it's not actually dangerous, it's horribly reprehensible to make someone take something into their body and mislead them as to what it is."