A complicated supply chain, combined with a demand for low food prices, contributes to confusion over the origin of meat products and raises questions about food safety.
LONDON — First there was "pink slime." Then horsemeat. Most recently? "Desinewed meat."
Recent revelations that such products have reached dinner tables, including horsemeat falsely labeled as beef in Europe, have cast an unappetizing light on the global food industry.
Critics say the widening horsemeat scandal in particular is a result of a food supply chain that has become too complex to be safe. Others say we are stuck with the system: In today's world, foodstuffs are highly mobile commodities, while consumers have come to expect — and increasingly need — plentiful, cheap meat.
Genevieve Cazes-Valette, a French anthropologist who studies food, said that throughout history, people around the world have had a special and intense relationship with meat.
"When we fast, we don't give up bread. We give up meat," she said.
A century ago, meat was a dish primarily for special occasions or for the rich. That's still the case in much of the world, but today consumers in wealthy countries expect meat to be their primary source of protein, and they want it to be inexpensive and convenient. They'd also prefer not to think too hard about where it came from.
Europe's horsemeat scandal has exposed a food supply chain set up to fulfill that demand, one in which meat from a Romanian abattoir can end up in British lasagna by way of companies in Luxembourg and France.
Since horse DNA was found in burgers from an Irish plant last month, the scandal has snaked its way across the continent, exposing a haphazard system with seemingly little rhyme or reason.
Horsemeat is not generally considered unsafe to eat, but the scandal has triggered disgust in places such as Britain where it traditionally is not eaten, and anger over the mislabeling of food products.
THE MEAT TRAIL
Three of the British firms whose products were found to contain horsemeat say they got the products from a French food processing firm, Comigel.
Comigel instructed Tavola, its subsidiary in Luxembourg, to make the products. Tavola placed an order for the meat with supplier Spanghero, based in the south of France, which contacted a Cypriot trader, who subcontracted a Dutch trader.
The Dutch trader placed an order with abattoirs in Romania, which sent the meat to Spanghero. The Romanians deny mislabeling horsemeat as beef.
Spanghero sent it on to Comigel's factory in Luxembourg, and it went into food products sent to stores across Europe.
Apart from the use of horsemeat — whose origins remain disputed — there is nothing unusual about the process. But the thought of anything making an unannounced appearance in prepared foods disturbs consumers.
"In France as elsewhere, people have this idea that we don't know quite what we're eating. We don't know where it comes from. We don't know who has touched it," Cazes-Valette said.
That unease stems partly from the fact that people in developed countries have become detached from the origins of the food they eat.
British Conservative lawmaker Mark Spencer argued in the House of Commons this week that the horsemeat crisis arose partly because "we have lost context of how valuable food is."
"You could say the same about car tires," he said. "You would never buy second-hand cheap car tires from someone on the cheap because you would instantly recognize that your own individual safety is at risk."
It's true that in many Western countries food has rarely been so cheap, and we have never been so dependent on cheap food.
In Britain, for instance, food once was one of the major household expenses, but now U.K. households spend less on food than on transport, culture and recreation, housing or fuel.
According to the Office for National Statistics, British households spent on average just over 11 percent of their income on food in 2011, much less than a few decades ago.
But the global economic crisis has hit incomes and, simultaneously, factors including bad weather, growing demand and speculation have caused prices for staples such as wheat, corn and soybeans to rise.
In the austerity-hit countries of Europe, people are buying less food, and seeking cheaper food. So there's a rise in demand for low-cost processed foods, including cheap burgers, pasta meals and pies.
Supermarkets, under pressure to offer cheap food, demand suppliers provide products for less. That means bulking-out burgers with the cheapest ingredients possible.
Some in Britain have blamed the horsemeat fraud on an abrupt European ban on the use of "desinewed meat," the minced flesh that comes from rubbing animal carcasses that have already been stripped of prime cuts. Desinewed meat played a major role in British meat products — but since last year's ban, suppliers have had to find a replacement.
And that, some believe, is where horsemeat came into the picture.
Elizabeth Dowler, professor of food and social policy at the University of Warwick, said the root of the problem is that food has become a vast international industry whose main concern is the bottom line.
"Food is treated as a commodity," she said. "It is not seen as something that contributes to well-being. The reality is that the food system is largely in the private sector and it is about running businesses, very successful businesses that make a lot of money."
European fears about horsemeat echo those that swept across the United States last year when the use of a meat product dubbed "pink slime" became widely known.
Like desinewed meat or horseflesh, it was never alleged that "pink slime" was unfit for human consumption. But the thought of fatty bits of beef being treated with a puff of ammonia to kill bacteria was something of a turnoff for Americans. The reaction to "pink slime" was dramatic.
Fast food companies, including McDonald's, changed their menus. Grocery stores promised to stop selling it. All but three states opted against buying meat with the product for school meals. And the meat processors that churned out the product began closing plants and laying off employees.
Cazes-Valette predicted a similar reaction in Europe.
"People will go back to buying pure beef that they're going to prepare themselves," she said. "Maybe they're even going to go back to the butcher, where they know what's going on."
And, she added, rather than pay more "they're going to eat less."
But Michael Walker, a science and food law consultant to British food-testing and analysis company LGC, said it will be hard for people to break their dependence on a complex food supply chain, especially if they want year-round availability of a wide range of products.
Walker said the horsemeat scandal shows the system of testing and regulation is fallible, but not fundamentally broken.
He said the science of DNA testing that exposes adulterated meat is robust, but that regulators, many of whom are facing government budget cuts, needed to use more "intelligence-led sampling" to catch offenders.
"The ingenuity of fraudsters is almost infinite, but we must do our best to try and keep up," he said.