Why this time, horse meat may be off the menu in France

A new horse-meat scandal has erupted in France, but whereas the first was about mislabeled horse meat, this time, the horses should never have been food at all.

Jacques Brinon/AP/File
Three horses' heads are displayed above a horse meat butcher shop in Paris in February. French law enforcement officials said Monday that 21 people have been arrested in raids across the south of France targeting the trafficking of horse meat that were treated with laboratory antibiotics and weren’t fit for human consumption.

After arriving in France in April, I know I thought twice about buying any frozen food containing meat. The country was still reeling from a horse-meat mega scandal, after tons of it had been marketed as beef and sold in ready-made frozen meals that showed up across Europe.

Now horse meat is in the news again, but this time it's far more worrisome. The investigation is unfolding, but in short, meat from horses used for medical research has ended up in the food chain, French officials said Monday.

The scandal involves the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, whose spokesman says the horses used to incubate antibodies were sold and labeled as not fit for human consumption. But along the way papers were allegedly falsified, and instead of the horses being killed and disposed of, they were sold to butcher houses between 2010 and 2012. The company has said it was unaware of the fraud and is cooperating with investigators.

“It could involve hundreds of horses if this has been going on for several years. In the last three years, we must have discharged about 200 horses,” spokesman Alain Bernal told Reuters.

The news emerged after raids in 11 regions of southern France – and at least one site in Spain, according to Agence France-Presse. Twenty-one people have been arrested, including traders, veterinarians, and butchers, according to local reports.

When I talk to Parisians about food, I find they are like residents of other urban centers across the globe who are increasingly worried about the globalization of food and its sources. “Eat local” is just as big a movement here as anywhere else. I have a friend who just got a job in Paris for a farmer in the south of France who is trying to sell products directly to the consumer and bypass the intermediary – who might not, like in this horse-meat case, be committing fraud, but is inflating prices nonetheless. I hear more about this type of effort all the time.

At the same time, while romantic notions of French shopping and cooking habits abound – buying fresh meat at the local butcher, vegetables next door, and then topping the trip off with a visit to the boulangerie for a baguette – in reality, the French love their frozen food. Don't think TV dinners here. The frozen food is far higher quality than what I've ever found in the US, and as a working mom, I have become an unabashed convert.

That's why the mislabeling scandal earlier this year was such a big blow to public confidence. Officials have worked hard to step up surveillance in the meat and fish industries and regain consumer trust.

This latest scandal is likely to undo a lot of that work. As Benoit Hamon, France's consumer affairs minister, pointed out on RTL radio, the "beef" scandal is dwarfed by the current case since this is a health safety concern, not just a food scam. “These were horses that should have ended up at the slaughterhouse, and instead they ended up at the butcher,” he said.

(The earlier scandal also pales in comparison to the new one because, while the notion of eating horse meat might jar some, in France it's still acceptable. So while the mislabeling was problematic, it did not offend sensibilities in France the same way as it did in Britain and Ireland, for example.)

Perhaps not wishing to spark panic, Guillaume Garot, the junior agriculture minister, was quoted by the Guardian as saying that a health scare is at this point not warranted. “At this stage, there is nothing to suggest a health problem. That's exactly what's being investigated.”

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