They Eat Horsemeat, Don’t They?

NUREMBERG, Germany — I've spent this week in Europe for Embedded World here but transited through the UK, and it's hard to miss the top news story here: The unfortunate discovery of horsemeat in frozen beef burgers on what appears to be a massive scale.

The scandal has provoked a recall of the burgers with “equine DNA” from supermarkets chains such as Tesco (NASDAQ:TESO), Asda (owned by Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)), Sainsbury's (LON:SBRY), and the institutional caterer Sodexho who supply schools, hospitals, and the military.

Completely transparent: The horsemeat scandal in the UK highlights the need  for visibility throughout the supply chain -- any supply chain.

Completely transparent: The horsemeat scandal in the UK highlights the need
for visibility throughout the supply chain — any supply chain.

Just to make sure we aren't being too complacent here in the United States, it is likely that horsemeat may have made it into your local IKEA's Swedish meatballs — don't forget that food is a global industry with a huge supply chain. It seems that horses from Eastern Europe were shipped to slaughter houses in France and Ireland for processing and somewhere in that chain the meat was disguised or fraudulently introduced into ground beef to cut cost.

Opaque, complex
Britain, in particular, is a horse-loving country, so this has been a shock to people. But I think the real news is the highly complex and opaque supply chain that led to this debacle. Looking at the scandal, some key themes emerge:

  • Suppliers from a wide geographical area sending raw material to a few large processors
  • Differing regulations and cultural attitudes between the countries that are trading
  • Razor-thin margins
  • Lack of traceability of product
  • Rising commodity prices
  • Products changing hands many times without an audit trail
  • Inability to spot counterfeiting or tampering

Does that sound suspiciously like the electronics supply chain? Any global supply chain is vulnerable to these factors, and the potential for fraud or malfeasance is part of human nature. But the question is “What are you doing to secure your supply chain?”

Trust, verify
Here at Embedded World, I heard that Green Hills Software is launching an end-to-end system authentication platform that can trace systems from the chip to the board and the system software so that is worth a look in a future story.

I also think the old Ronald Reagan quote of “trust but verify” comes into play, and the onus is on you to work with partners you know and trust. It's a fact of life that we will always have a grey market but how much do you know about the parts you are buying?

There is a stern lesson to be learned from this saga and we should prevent this happening in our industry. One meat processor even blamed the victims by stating that the ridiculously low margins forced on him by huge buyers made this inevitable.

Not a smart move, but how rough are you on your suppliers?

Caveat Emptor still applies, my friends.

20 comments on “They Eat Horsemeat, Don’t They?

  1. Nemos
    March 1, 2013

    From my point of view, the most important key point is the ” Products changing hands many times without an audit trail” without ignoring the importantly of the others also. In addition, I would like to add the *lowering the cost without caring about quality. It is so obvious in all products is a limit between the lowest price and the quality, big super market brands and the consumers must be suspicious in too cheap products. Don't expect the merrier with the minimum.

  2. Brian Fuller
    March 1, 2013

    @Nemos, just thinking how the local-food / slow food movement fits in here. The big cheap suppliers can comply with supply-chain regulations etc. Wonder whether that's an impediment to growth for smaller, organic farmers. 


  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 1, 2013

    This is another area where counterfeiters seem to have made inroads and the hapless customers are falling easy prey to their tricks.

  4. Cryptoman
    March 3, 2013

    In my opinion, one should never trust a process where human involvement exists. This is particularly important where you do not see the involvement first hand and all the details are hidden from you. In today's world, money and profit rules it all. Therefore, people will go to extreme lengths to make more money the easy way whenever they seize the opportunity. Human nature has not changed in the last thousand year and it is unlikely to change in the next thousand years either. Therefore, do not trust and always verify. Horse meat in a European supermarket makes headline news whereaos it is not newsworthy in the third world countries because it happens all the time. In Europe the regulations are tight and a case that slips through the net attracts public attention instantly. This is a good sign that the verification and auditing measures are working well. However, it is still important to note that despite the existing measures in place, there is still room for improvement.

  5. Ariella
    March 3, 2013

    @Nemos You've hit upon that universal truth: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is not true. 

  6. Ravenwood
    March 6, 2013


    Cryptoman : “In my opinion, one should never trust a process where human involvement exists. “

    Sparky : Agreed. Let's begin with the Purchasing Department…

  7. Patrick_yu
    March 6, 2013

    Didn't the developed countries often accused the under-developed countries such as China of such fraudulent practices due mostly to lousy system without sufficient monitoring?

    The lessons learnt should be: all human of all races are greedy and no country, no matter how structural and good its system appears to be on the surface, is immune from fraud and bribe.  In fact, the global collapse in economy was the result of the numerous finance innovation originated from USA, which is the real-world realization of greed!

  8. William K.
    March 6, 2013

    There is one VERY BIG difference between the counterfeiting of electronic or other components and the substitution of horsemeat for beef, which is that “nobody dies”. Just because eating horsemeat offends some folks does not mean that it poisons them, while fake parts can ruin a product and injure people. So while I don't make any excuses for the inclusion of horsemeat, it is just not in the same league as the counterfeit components problem.

    But if you are brave and want an interesting experience, order a hot dog in southwestern China. And just try to guess what went into it. Mystery meat indeed.

  9. Ariella
    March 6, 2013

    @william K that's true. It seems to be a matter of personal sensibilities that makes people feel that cows and pigs are OK to eat, but horses and dogs are not.

  10. William K.
    March 6, 2013

    Ariella, My point exactly: while it may indeed be found offensive, it is usually nontoxic. Consider what some of our troops learn to eat during that survival training course. The longer course, not the basic one. It might definitely offend you sensibilities.

  11. Susan Fourtané
    March 6, 2013


    There is a part of the world where people eat cats. I just don't remember where. In some other places cows are sacred, not food. In other places they eat things that just a thought of it makes my stomach revolt. In fact, eating other animals shouldn't be considered right. 


  12. Susan Fourtané
    March 6, 2013

    William K., 

    “Consider what some of our troops learn to eat during that survival training course. The longer course, not the basic one.”

    What do they learn to eat? 


  13. Ariella
    March 7, 2013

    @WilliamK A London show went one step further,  promoting the environmental benefits of eating bugs. See Insects May Be the Most Sustainable Food Source.

  14. dblaza
    March 7, 2013

    In response to William K I think the food supply chain can be dangerous, just think back to the melamine in the Chinese baby milk powder,  I think there were deaths in that case.  

  15. William K.
    March 7, 2013

    Absolutely, the food chain is probably where a whole lot of danger is found, more in some parts of the world then in others. I was going to include a comment about the melamine  poisoning, but we were talkingabout horsemeat, not processed foods such as milk.

  16. William K.
    March 7, 2013

    Susan, we learned to eat a variety of bugs, barks, plants, and fungus. Also about which rodents can be consumed raw. In fact we only learned about things that can be consumed raw, since cooking can attract attention. Also learned that there are some animals that are so full of parasites that they should never be eaten, or even touched. 

    I can promis you that a whole lot of things on the list would make your stomach revolt, even from just reading them.

    That makes it even more enjoyable eating normal food. BUT there are no picky-eaters coming out of that kind of class.

  17. Brian Fuller
    March 7, 2013

    @dblaza, David indeed, but think about the vast volume and velocity of the food supply chain. It's a wonder there aren't more melamine/horsemeat/Ikea problems. Instead they're relatively rare (the occasional California lettuce taint notwithstanding). 

    This is probably due in part to the fact that humans are smart enough not to soil their sustenance, but also to a pretty sophisticated and relatively secure supply chain. 


  18. Susan Fourtané
    April 2, 2013


    Yes, the food supply chain can be dangerous. ANd speaking of milk in China, it was last year or the year before last that China was going to start selling milk from GM cows. I wonder if they label the milk, or the other product as GM, do you know? 


  19. Susan Fourtané
    April 2, 2013

    William K., 

    Thanks for all that. We don't really think of those things, do we? I am not sure what I would do in such situation. I suppose vegetarians forget they are vegetarians in survival situations.

    What about taking protein bars with you? I am not sure I would dare to eat raw animals. In fact, I wouldn't. But then again, I don't think I will be in a situation where I could test this. :/ Not that I would be interested in testing it, or anything. 


  20. William K.
    April 2, 2013

    Susan, A modern soldier, (warfighter they get called now) has a whole lot of things that they are carrying already. A few protien bars may last for a while, but if you are already running with fifty pounds stashed on your person in a bunch of locations there is not much room left for more food. And almost none of them are planning on not “getting home for supper”. But sometimes “lost” happens, or a group gets cut off, or a plane crashes. Survival is for when the plans fall apart, it is the backup plan for when things go wrong somehow. So you see that after training every survival situation exists because things did not follow the plan. 

    As for vegitarians, I don't think that I ever noticed any of them, at least nobody made a big deal about it. Survival is not about preference, it is about keeping oneself strong enough to stay alive. 

    One more thing is that I never met any horses in any survival situation, neither training or tactical. Horses seem to know when to leave.

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