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What Can We Learn from the Horsemeat Controversy?

Though we keep hearing the names Nestle, Ikea, Burger King, and Taco Bell, don't be fooled: the tally is actually at 13.

Thirteen different brands, companies, and entities in fourteen countries have been discovered to be creating products that contain as much as 100% horse DNA. What does that mean?

It means that there are European consumers purchasing ground beef products that contain absolutely no cow. Horseflesh is being sold as cow, at the price of cow.

The scandal began in Ireland, when the country's Food Safety Authority discovered that beef products were found to contain as much as 29% horse, and were being supplied to stores hailed for their cost-cutting and everyday value deals, such as Aldi, Dunnes, Lidi, and Tesco. In less than a week, Burger King's UK arm dropped Silvercrest Foods as their meat supplier, who seemed to be responsible for the contamination.

Less than two weeks later, a second purveyor, Rangeland Foods, is suspended by Ireland's Department of Agriculture after the plant is discovered to be producing raw materials that contain almost 75% horse meat. A day later, Freeza Meats is outed as selling meat that is up to 80% horsemeat. Within the next week, countless stores are forced to pull down "ground beef" products that are found to contain, in some cases, 100% horsemeat.

The month of February, 2013 was littered with recalls, broken contracts, and bad publicity: Nestle's Buitoni brand, Ikea's Swedish meatballs, Taco Bell's ground beef taco meat, and countless British hospitals, schools and hotels were all forced to come forward, admitting that they, too, had been snookered.

Should we rest comfortably, knowing that the chance of these European products making it over to the United States is slim? Is horsemeat really such a huge deal? Is there a teachable moment in all of this for America?

No, yes, and absolutely. In that order.

There should be no comfort in the distance between us here in the US and Europe, because processed food manufacturing processes are the same no matter where you are. There is always one person who grows the meat, another who slaughters it, a third who stores it and sells it, a fifth who forms the products, a sixth who distributes it and a seventh company who slaps its brand on it and sells it to the public; this is fact no matter what continent we're discussing. The product changes hands so many times, that it becomes virtually impossible to point a finger at where the horsemeat came from.

Should we rest comfortably, knowing that the chance of these European products making it over to the United States is slim? Is horsemeat really such a huge deal? Is there a teachable moment in all of this for America?

Operating on a combination of "trusting your business partners to do their jobs" and "wanting to cut costs," testing for foreign substances is minimal and rare. The movie Food Inc. discusses this in depth. The goal, with major multinational companies, is not creating quality product. The goal is cheap. If horsemeat, an inexpensive product with no regulation and no oversight, could be used to meet the demands of cheap ground meat, why wouldn’t it?

Don’t let the lack of horse slaughterhouses in the USA fool you, either. Valley Meat Company, a New Mexico slaughterhouse, sued the USDA for the ability to produce horsemeat for human consumption. It should also be noted that this measure is expected to pass.

In what seems like a terrifying prospect, there is still a teachable moment.

First and foremost, this teaches us that some things are worth spending a little bit more on to ensure their quality. Food is our primary means of being proactive about our health; ingesting cheap foods that could possibly and potentially be contaminated with any random meat can do us no good. If horses are given antibiotics deemed harmful to humans, and humans ingest those antibiotics anyway by way of eating horsemeat, are we prepared for any negative reactions in the human body?

Even if we are, the resulting care could be costly.

Next, think about how this affects those with the least money in America. Those with the extra income will simply invest in a meat grinder, or find a local farm and cowpool their meat. Those on the most limited of budgets will take the loss and see their favorite products, the inexpensive staples that keep both the family fed and the lights on, filled with the meat of an unfamiliar animal that they may not have wanted. Cheap protein may solve the challenge of feeding a family on a limited budget, but what does it say about us that citizens of the wealthiest country in the world are faced with these kinds of challenges?

Lastly, we should take a long hard look at how this began. The proactive investigations from Ireland’s government created the long chain of events that resulted in not only horse, donkey and water buffalo discoveries, but also soy and