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Opinion: Furor over horsemeat reveals need for strict food labeling

Would you eat horsemeat?  A lot of people would not. Should you have the right to know if the meat you are eating contains horsemeat?  The answer to that question is a resounding yes – and that’s why the current scandal in Europe over horsemeat reveals a lot about the push to get better labels on the food we eat.

If you don’t want to eat horse – why? What is the problem?  If you eat meat, then why not horse? After all, many people around the world do eat it. Horse is on the menu or in the kitchen in many nations including Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Tonga, Iceland, Germany, Sweden and Holland. So whatever you think about eating horse, it isn’t safety that makes you disgusted at the very idea. 

Still, Europe is in the midst of a huge scandal involving horsemeat showing up in a lot of the wrong places. Testing has revealed that much of what has been sold as beef or pork in restaurants, schools and hospitals as well as in frozen meat products in grocery stores such as lasagna contains horsemeat.  Even the furniture giant Ikea had traces of horsemeat found in the meatballs they were selling in their restaurant stores in some parts of Europe.

Why is the discovery of horse meat in food such a big deal?  What is so troubling to Europeans that there have been protests and outrage against food companies in many nations where mislabeled meat has been found?  To understand the furor generated by consumers finding out there is horse in there you need to look elsewhere.  The South Philadelphia restaurant Monsu provides a clue.

The head chef of BYOB Monsu announced last week that the restaurant's menu would soon include some selections of the equine variety. But the day after announcing horse was going on the menu, the restaurant received a serious threat. “They called into the restaurant and said, ‘You guys start cooking horses, I am going to blow up your restaurant,’” Andrews said to NBC10.com.  Clearly, some folks feel very strongly that horses belong in a paddock, not a plate.

Food is much more than safety, and it is much more than nutrition – we see this  when we get into fights about labeling genetically modified food, or requiring that meat from cloned animals be clearly marked or that organic food really be organic to merit the description the European scandal over horse meat.  Food is culture.  Food is family.  Food, in short, is values.

Those who get into fights about labeling food thinking it is just an issue of safety never tried to put horse on the menu in South Philadelphia or deal with an outraged customer in England whose beef stew was more than that.  The ethical and policy lesson for regulators, industry and farmers of putting horse meat where it is not supposed to be is very simple--when it comes to food we should be able to find out anything and everything we want to know about what we eat.  To do otherwise is to deny informed choice about a subject -- food -- that is too complicated to permit any other standard.

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Horse meat found in Ikea meatballs, Czech officials say