Food Fraud: Horses, Hamburgers . . . and Harm?

by Mary Hall on February 7, 2013

The recent revelation that many “beef” burgers in the UK are actually “partial horse” burgers has caused quite a stir.  In case you haven’t been following the story, here’s a rough recap:  Approximately 170 tons of horse meat traveled from Poland, across several countries, to Ireland, and then from Ireland to the UK, where it ultimately ended up in “beef” patties.  According to the BBC, certain lots of ground meat labeled as “beef” actually contained up to 80% horse meat.  Although the situation came to light just three weeks ago, there is speculation that this horse-as-beef deception may have been going on for six months or longer.

The upshot?  Britain is blaming Ireland, Ireland is blaming Poland, burger and supermarket chains are firing their suppliers, and the average British citizen is not pleased. One  citizen, quoted in The Guardian, summed it up quite simply by stating: “It grosses me out.”

Food Fraud is on the Rise

In case it offers any consolation, British citizens are not alone.  According the non-profit U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), food fraud is on the rise around the world.  In January, USP reported that food fraud cases have risen by 60 percent over the past two years.  A full 95 percent of these cases involved “food adulteration,” which is the practice of replacing an authentic food (beef, for example), either partially or completely, with a cheaper substitute (horse meat, perhaps).

For those of us who do not eat much red meat, there is little cause for celebration.  USP reports that as much as one-third of all “100% Honey” sold in stores may contain something other than honey.   Vegetable oils, spices, and seafood are also suspect.  For a comprehensive list of unappetizing news from a variety of sources, visit the USP “Food Fraud Database.”

“We suspect that what we know about the topic is just the tip of the iceberg,”

– Dr. Jeffrey Moore, creator and lead analyst of the USP Food Fraud database.

Food fraud can easily go undetected since it rarely causes obvious illness.  In fact, there have been no reports of physical illness directly linked to the horse meat in British burgers.   Does this mean that food fraud is not a public health risk? Is it merely a threat to consumer confidence?   Not if you were to ask Drs. Douglas Moyer and John Spink, researchers with Michigan State University’s (MSU) Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Program (A-CAPPP).

A Public Health Risk

In their article, Defining the public health threat of food fraud, Moyer and Spink argue that, given the complexity of our current food system, public health vulnerability from food adulteration is real– whether the adulteration comes from a food safety incident, a food defense incident, or food fraud. A food safety incident (for example, ground beef contaminated with e. coli ) is unintentional and results in unintentional harm.  A food defense incident (malicious tampering or food terrorism) is intentional and solely designed to inflict great harm.  A food fraud incident, while definitely intentional, is not intended to be a public health threat.  The motive is simply economic gain.

Nonetheless, creative food swindlers have inadvertently caused great harm.  In China, melamine, an industrial plasticizer, was dumped into poor quality milk because it mimicked high quality protein and allowed the milk to pass tests for high protein content. When scores of people were harmed and several babies died as a result, the fraudulent practice was uncovered.

Moyers and Spink use melamine as an example of an unexpected food adulterant. They point out that our current food screening systems are not designed to detect this type of unconventional contaminant.  Furthermore, they argue that modern food supply chains and manufacturing infrastructure have vastly expanded the scale and potential impact of food fraud.  The world’s food supply chains are interdependent.  Many of the ingredients in today’s manufactured foods are supplied from a multitude of sources spanning the globe.  In a system this complex, health risks are inevitable.

On a Positive Note . . .

The goal of Moyer and Spink’s research is to shift the focus from fraud intervention strategies to fraud prevention strategies.  Food fraud is opportunistic.  If we can understand the conditions that create opportunities for fraud, we can alter those conditions,  remove the opportunities, and prevent food fraud from happening in the first place.

In Case You are Curious . . .

Horse meat is generally more nutritious than beef.   It has fewer calories, more protein, more iron, less cholesterol, and far less saturated fat.  If you care to see for yourself, visit the USDA’s National Nutrient Database.  You’ll find horsemeat in the category of “Game Meat,” below bison and just above moose .


King M, Buckley J.  February 1, 2013. Horsemeat scandal leaves Burger King facing a whopping backlash. The Guardian.

Pierson F. January 23, 2013. New additions increase number of records in USP Food Fraud database by 60 percent, add seafood, clouding agents and lemon juice as foods vulnerable to fraud.  Press Release. U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, Rockville, MD.

Spink J, Moyer DC. 2011.  Defining the public health threat of food fraud.  J Food Sci. 2011 Nov-Dec;76(9):R157-63. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02417.x.


Gaythia Weis February 7, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Interesting topic!

I agree that the melamine adulterant problem was opportunistic, added to get around a analytical test. But for other issues, such as horsemeat, I’m not so sure that fraud necessarily has increased. Perhaps new methods of detection have just made this more identifiable? For example, DNA analysis can now be used to identify fish substitutions.

Mary Hall February 8, 2013 at 8:20 am

Please forgive me . . . I accidentally replied to your post below, under Hilary Sutcliffe’s comment. Instead of duplicating my reply to your post, I hope you don’t mind my redirecting you to the replies on Hilary’s post.
I chalk this up to my being a first time blogger. I really appreciated your comment . . . and feel like heck that I goofed in posting my reply.

Hilary Sutcliffe February 8, 2013 at 2:17 am

Interesting post, thanks. Agree with the commenter that as often is the case the detection methods getting better is the catalyst for such improvements. It appears that it is a concern about the meds used on horses which is also the problem, but it is also impressive on the other hand that there appears to be incredibly precise tracking of horses at the same with a concern expressed this morning that ‘six horses with a baned med have got in the food chain, one in the UK, six in France.’ It’s interesting to me also that the precision and the lax standards exist side


Mary Hall February 8, 2013 at 7:18 am

I agree –it is hard to say whether food fraud itself has actually increased or if it is simply the detections of food fraud that have increased due to more sophisticated analytical methods. It was actually DNA analysis that uncovered the horse meat hidden in UK “beef.” In fact, several of the affected supermarket chains have stated that they may now perform their own DNA testing as a deterrent to this type of fraud and a way to maintain consumer confidence in their products.
In hindsight, I wish I had been careful to state that “reports” of food fraud have risen . . .
Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply!

Mary Hall February 8, 2013 at 8:06 am

Thanks for mentioning issue of meds in horse meat. Legitimate horse slaughterhouses are required to screen for the common veterinary NSAID phenylbutazone, or “bute,” because it poses serious human health risks. In an article in this morning’s BBC online, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) says it’s highly likely that criminal activity is at the root of the horse meat scandal. In that case, you have to wonder whether the fraudulent horse meat came from legitimate slaughterhouses. Although FSA states there is no evidence of a health risk from the contaminated products, it has now ordered one company to test their products for “bute”.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Ashley Patriarca February 8, 2013 at 8:31 am

Fascinating post. I begin to worry that we’re seeing a modern version of The Jungle happening – if the old line was “we use everything of the pig but the squeal,” then today’s seems to be “we use everything but the pig.” Any thoughts on how the U.S., U.K., and other countries might begin to thwart such food adulteration?

Mary Hall February 8, 2013 at 11:14 am

Thank you for your comment . . . I love your quotations. In response to your question about thwarting food adulteration, here are my thoughts: I think both widespread public awareness and sophisticated analytical technologies will go a long way toward thwarting conventional food fraud in many countries. The situation in the EU has raised public awareness. As a result, some of the large food retailers swept up in the EU scandal may begin performing their own DNA testing to restore consumer confidence in their products. EU governments are being pressured to take action as well. The Jungle raised public awareness that led to regulatory reforms . . . I hope news of the EU meat scandal will have similar repercussions.
Personally . . . I’m an advocate of shorter food supply chains–the longer the chain, the more opportunities for fraud. “Know your farmer, know your food” may not be practical for most people . . . but there should be a middle ground that is safer and more sustainable than the current situation.

Ashley Patriarca February 9, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Thanks for your response! I think you’re probably exactly right in terms of your suggestions – more exposure and a shorter food supply chain may be the best combination to prevent food adulteration. I’ve been trying to take steps such as getting most of my meat from local farmers – I will say that I am looking forward to spring so I can get more fresh vegetables from them, too.

Hillary February 8, 2013 at 11:30 am

Great post on a timely topic, but rather than wrapping up with the nutrition facts of horse meat, you could have touched on potential issues related to that specific adulteration (you touch on bute above, possibly other issues related to infectious disease). Would have brought the end back to the beginning and answered the question so many people are asking of “so what?”

Mary Hall February 8, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Thanks for good advice! I need to make a big sign with the words “so what?” and hang it over my desk as a reminder. I fully agree that my ending seems tacked on — it really doesn’t lend support or expand upon any of the information before it. Writing this first blog was like white knuckle driving on an icy road –you cannot imagine how relieved I was to near the end. I think that sense of relief caused me to make a poor choice in “parking” this blog.

Margaret Freaney February 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Truly an interesting topic. I have already bookmarked the food fraud database. I will admit to being less interested in the specific case about horse meat and more interested in the wide range of food fraud. This was a short post and I think you could have gone more in depth into the wide range of food fraud.


Mary Hall February 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm

I agree that I skimped on the USP info . . . I may go back and revisit the wider issue in a later blog.
Thanks for your feedback!

Angela February 11, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Hi Mary! I’m glad that you pointed out the nutritional benefits of horse meat. Coming from a country where horse meat is considered a delicacy, my first reaction to my UK friends’ horror of horse meat was: ‘you should be lucky!’ I have to admit that, at the time, I did not know the background to the story. It seems to have gone even crazier, if you can believe this report: (Btw donkey is not on the USDA list…)
Joke aside, I do find it hard nowadays to know what you are buying, no matter what, and I applaud projects such as Followthethings who put in thousands of hours of difficult detective work. You could perhaps include some initiatives against food fraud or ways that consumers can get involved as part of your ‘positive note’.
Also, you could perhaps include a few more links in the article, e.g. to news items about the recent horse meat scare or for articles you mention (e.g. ‘Defining the public health threat of food fraud’). Looking forward to your follow-up post!

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