Horsemeat found recently in packaging labelled as beef products in Britain and other European countries has prompted calls for safety measures around the world.
One of Britain's biggest hotel companies admitted that its fast-food lines like burgers and lasagne sold in its restaurant chains were laced with horsemeat. Witbread Plc, which owns Premier Inn as well as the Brewers Fayre and Beefeater Grill pub chains, told investigators that their beef products had been contaminated. A laboratory which carried out official tests in Staffordshire on beef products sold in Britain found that more than half of samples sent to it for analysis were contaminated with meats that should never have been there, including pork and horsemeat. The local authority laboratory in Stafford had been analyzing a range of frozen chilled and canned products, meat balls, ready meals and spaghetti Bolognese.
Although no particular health hazard is associated with the consumption of horsemeat, processing and marketing it as beef product raises ethical concerns. The horsemeat discovery is considered scandalous by many consumers of the product. This comes from the obviously deliberate attempt to mislead consumers by the mislabelling of the product.
Since the incident became public in Britain, some agencies in Nigeria, including the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) have not made any categorical statement on the issue. Nigeria is a major trading partner of Britain from where large consignments of beef products, like corned beef, are imported. There is no guarantee that some of these wrongly-labelled beef products are not already in Nigerian markets. This is enough warning for Nigerians to be cautious in the consumption of packaged beef products.
Whether NAFDAC has the technical capacity to trace, let alone withdraw such adulterated beef products from circulation is an open question. The agency needs to do more in the monitoring and control of food and meat products. Unless strict laws are put in place to regulate the production, processing, importation and sale of food and meat products in the markets and popular restaurants, members of the public stand the risk of ingesting what they did not bargain for. Sanitizing the fast-food business should go beyond requiring operators to conform to hygiene standards.
Major horsemeat production countries include China, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Argentina, Italy and Brazil. In 2005, these countries produced over 700,000 tonnes of the product.
While some people are restricted by culture or religion from the consumption of horsemeat, others are free to eat it without any prohibition. Because of the role horses have played as companions and as workers, and concerns about the ethics of the horse slaughtering process, it is a taboo food in some cultures. These cultural associations, as well as religious sensitivities, led to the culture of aversion to the consumption of horsemeat. Today, the horse is given pet status by many in some parts of the world, particularly in Western societies, further adding to the notion of taboo associated with eating its meat. The United States outlawed horsemeat in pet foods in the 1970s.
The regulatory agencies in Nigeria need to be conscious of such cultural sensitivities in any programme aimed at providing guidelines for the importation of beef products. These could include making it mandatory for food and meat processing companies to provide details of the contents in every packaged food or meat. This policy should also require monitoring by NAFDAC authorities in the country to ensure that importers and manufacturing companies comply strictly with the policy guidelines on the importation and marketing of beef and other meat products.