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Derek Coleman: Question beef before eating

Jan. 27, 2013 @ 09:30 PM

We all like fast food. Hamburgers in their various forms make popular meals on both sides of the Atlantic. In my younger days back in Britain, they were always called beefburgers rather than hamburgers, although I hear the American name is being used a lot more now.

These days there seems to be a McDonald's, a Burger King or the British chain Wimpeys on every high street and at every service station on the motorways, which are Britain's equivalent of our own Interstates. For those who prefer to cook at home, of course, there are both fresh and frozen varieties of burger in the supermarkets and they are always a popular buy for busy moms in a hurry to feed hungry children.

Or they were.

At the moment, some supermarket chains in Britain cannot give burgers away. The reason is that two months ago, laboratories belonging to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland tested a variety of meat products currently on sale in Britain and Ireland. Their findings were announced at the end of last week and caused a furor. The first thing they found was unacceptable levels of pig meat in beef products.

European law is very precise about what foods can contain. Burgers fall into two categories: standard and economy. A standard beef burger has to have a minimum of 62 percent beef, burgers made of other meats such as chicken have to have at least 55 percent chicken meat, while pork has to have 67 percent. The percentages are lower for economy burgers, with 47 percent for beef, 41 percent for chicken and 50 percent for pork. Meat in these cases cannot be anything that was machine stripped from a carcass and the rest of the product can only be made up of herbs, onion, flour or rusk, fat and stabilizing chemicals.

Okay, so the Irish scientists found a little pig meat in beef products. While some religious groups who are not allowed to eat pork will be horrified to learn that almost all the samples tested showed traces of pig meat, is that enough to cause questions in parliament and the total withdrawal of some products? It may be, but it's what else the Irish authorities found that is creating the fuss. In 10 out of 27 samples that were tested, DNA analysis found that there was up to 29 percent horse meat in these burgers.

Now, the British don't eat horses. We like horses. To a British person, it would be like being asked to eat any other pet. Any animals we give names to, animals that are intelligent or animals we pet are not meant for eating. We just do not do it. The French do, so do the Dutch, Belgians and our Italian cousins. In some places, horse meat is considered a delicacy and nutrition wise, it is quite a healthy meat. But we still won't eat it.

In 2008, some 2,000 horses were slaughtered for meat in Ireland, with most of the product being exported to continental Europe. Last year, this figure had risen to 11,000 and Britain also had five facilities that processed horses. Most of the meat obtained this way either went for pet food or was exported.

Now the Irish authorities have traced the possible source of the horse meat that found its way into burgers to two suppliers in the Netherlands. The two processing plants that produced the burgers both deny knowingly purchasing horse meat but one has now closed indefinitely and several supermarket chains in Britain have withdrawn a number of meat products from their stores. It is being estimated that several million frozen and fresh burgers will be going to incinerators instead of to British kitchens and in the mean time, the British government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working closely with the Food Standards Agency to carry out their own tests and to determine how the Irish burgers came to contain horsemeat.

I have visited France numerous times. I have also visited other European countries where horse meat is part of the national diet. I have never knowingly ordered or eaten horse, but a steak is a steak and it's difficult to tell its origin from taste alone, especially when it is served with a strongly flavored sauce. I also have a liking for sausage and who can tell what goes in them so perhaps I have tasted horse flesh without knowing it. What I do know is that should I want a burger on my next visit to Britain I will get it from one of the reputable restaurants we all know, I definitely will not be buying it from a supermarket and cooking my own.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.