So much for Grandma.
The scandal erupted Feb. 7 when Britain’s Food Standards Agency discovered horsemeat mixed into frozen lasagna labeled as 100 percent beef. Horse-loving Britons, who would never think of eating Black Beauty, were shocked, all the more so in that the lasagna came from across the English Channel.
“It’s a straight fraud,” said Britain’s environment minister, Owen Paterson, giving voice to the outrage of English consumers. “If a product says it’s beef and you’re actually buying horse, that is a fraud.”
But that was just the beginning. By Tuesday, the shock had spread across Europe, even to countries such as France, where people routinely eat horsemeat. Prepared dishes labeled as beef, it turned out, have been commonly laced with cheaper horsemeat and sold at frozen-food counters across the continent. There is no telling how long the cheating has been going on or how much is undiscovered.
In reaction, frozen dishes such as shepherd’s pie, pizza and meatballs have been withdrawn from hundreds of multinational-chain supermarkets in at least 16 countries. A dozen national investigations have been launched. The European Union has vowed to require meat merchants to conduct costly DNA testing. French President Francois Hollande said that all meat products sold in France must bear a label of origin, just like wine.
“The entire sector has fallen victim to a fraud without precedent,” said Jean-Rene Buisson, president of the French National Association of Food Industries.
For many Europeans, the issue was less disgust at eating horsemeat than the dishonesty involved in false labeling. But Fabrice Nicolino, a journalist who writes about the food industry and the environment, warned that testing could well turn up unhealthy residue from anti-inflammatory drugs that are often administered to horses.
“Nobody really knows what industrial meat contains,” he wrote Monday in Le Monde.
Perhaps even more unsettling was the spotlight suddenly directed at a modern agro-industry that, with few people noticing, has left picturesque farmers’ markets far behind and, instead, trades in bulk food across borders much as other industries trade in diamonds or oil.
Giving the lie to images of rosy-cheeked peasants and busy family kitchens, more than 90 percent of European households at least occasionally buy ready-made frozen dishes, according to industry research. Britain and Germany lead European consumption of such dishes, but France is not far behind in third place.