How Romanian workhorses reach the dinner plate

Wed Feb 13, 2013 7:47am EST
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By Radu Marinas

POROSCHIA, Romania (Reuters) - Florin Dumitru, like millions of subsistence farmers in Romania, the European Union's second-poorest country, will have no choice when the horse that ploughs his scrap of land can no longer earn its keep.

"What do you have to do when he can't plough or pull a cart any more? You just sell it to the slaughterhouse to butcher it," said Dumitru, 40, who lives in Poroschia, home to one of Romania's big abattoirs.

After slaughter, some of Romania's horses, the only option for the many farmers who can't afford a tractor, have found their way across Europe, through processors and middlemen and finally into frozen meals masquerading as beef.

Increasing globalization in food production and pressure from retailers to drive down costs has created a fiendishly complicated supply chain, particularly for processed foods with multiple separately sourced inputs, raising the risk of adulteration, whether by design to save money through cheaper ingredients or through poor standards.

Industry sources say the abattoirs pay about 3.5 lei ($1.07) per kilo for a horse, but 5.5 lei/kg for a cow.

The animals butchered in Romania took a roundabout route to British and French dinner tables, via Dutch and Cypriot traders and a French company that supplied meat to a Luxembourg factory belonging to a second French firm, Comigel. It still remains unclear how and where the horse became "beef".

Romanian officials say their abattoirs meet EU standards and their investigation has cleared the two possible sources of the horsemeat, one in Transylvania and the other at Botosani close to the borders with Ukraine and Moldova, of relabeling it.

"If you are looking for a guilty party in this, it is rural poverty in Romania," said Stuart Meikle, an agricultural investment adviser who has run a farming business in Romania.   Continued...

Two horses are harnessed to a cart on a road near Ucea de Jos village, 260 km (159 miles) northwest of Bucharest February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel