LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
IKEA's famous Swedish meatballs are the latest food found to contain unlabeled horse meat. The company has removed its popular delicacies from stores in 14 European countries. Meatballs are still available in IKEA's U.S. stores because IKEA in America buys its meat in this country. European Union agriculture ministers meeting yesterday in Brussels scrapped their agenda and went straight to the horse meat scandal.
To find out more, we called Joshua Chaffin. He is the E.U. correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper and he was at that meeting.
JOSHUA CHAFFIN: Good morning.
WERTHEIMER: So what did the European Union's agriculture ministers discuss? And did they decide anything?
CHAFFIN: Well, they discussed this widening scandal. They've decided to go forward with more testing to try to see what the dimension of the problem is, so DNA testing of horse carcasses and also processed foods.
WERTHEIMER: Doesn't that mean that you would have to test anything that had ground meat in it, or anything that had been prepared with meat stock?
CHAFFIN: That's the problem. The scale of testing that you would have to do to reasonably be sure is so enormous and so costly. But they do have to do some amount of testing to kind of reassure consumers that what they're eating is safe.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the food standards agency in Britain, other food authorities are also conducting investigations. Does anybody know, yet, who's doing this?
CHAFFIN: Not really. There have been a few arrests in Britain. You know, at the outset of this scandal there was - seemed to be a sense that this would be one or two meat companies. But you mentioned IKEA today. Nestle was caught up in it last week. And so, it's now being described by ministers, last night, as a Europe-wide criminal problem.
WERTHEIMER: Countries like the United Kingdom, for example, they have had stringent rules about meat for some time, because of the mad cow epidemic from years past. How did horsemeat slip into a highly regulated supply like that?
CHAFFIN: Well, there are lots of theories. For one thing, as these supply chains have become so complex, there are sort of ever-increasing possibilities for someone along the way to trade this much cheaper horse meat for beef and pocket some cash. There's a strange kind of crossover with the economic crisis. There seem to be a lot of unwanted horses these days, in places like Ireland and Spain, where people may not have the money anymore to take care of them.
There was also very stringent labeling regulations put in place, in the wake of mad cow, for fresh meat. But those were not extended to processed foods. You know, say, lasagna or shepherd's pie, or what have you. The food industry ultimately prevailed on them not to do this. Now that idea has come up again and looks like it's going to be revisited.
WERTHEIMER: Is there any kind of a health concern here? I know in some parts of the continent, people routinely eat horse meat. Or are people just upset at the thought that there might be something in their food that they personally would not eat, but they didn't know about it?
CHAFFIN: Well, there have been traces found of phenylbutazone, which is a - I guess it's a painkiller that's administered to horses...
WERTHEIMER: It's given lots of times on the racetrack. Bute it's called, yeah.
CHAFFIN: That's right. So far most of the tests have come back negative. So then you have the fact that this isn't what you thought it was. And I think that that worrying sense - we don't know how the horse meat got into the food chain, we don't know what else did - it just creates a level of, kind of, doubt and suspicion about the entire system.
WERTHEIMER: Joshua Chaffin is the EU correspondent for the Financial Times. He joined us from Brussels. Thanks very much.
CHAFFIN: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.
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