Dec. 7, 2020

Human DNA in Hot Dogs and the European Horsemeat Scandal

Becca shares a story about hot dogs that will make your skin crawl, even though it probably shouldn’t. 

Then Sarah tells the tale of the most famous (and most unsettling) food fraud in recent years: the European horsemeat scandal. Building off last week's episode on food fraud in the organic world, Sarah & Becca discuss how the power imbalance in the food system created the perfect conditions for the horsemeat scandal to occur. 

Plus, a bonus story about how a Top Chef Canada episode got a resounding “neigh” from horse lovers across North America. 

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S: Welcome to Dietetics After Dark - your source for food-related crime, scandal, and fraud.

S: Welcome everyone, I’m Sarah...

R: ...and I’m Rebecca.


R & S: I want everyone to know that all the citations and relevant links for anything mentioned in this episode will be in the episode description and in our show notes at (that’s junky with a “Y”). Also, the information in this podcast is for entertainment and educational purposes only. If you’re interested in medical nutrition therapy or personalized nutrition advice, please talk to a doctor or registered dietitian in your area. This podcast may contain coarse language, mature subject matter and content of a violent or disturbing nature. Listener discretion is advised. 

Veggie Dogs & Human DNA

B: You asked me to look up a few instances of what’s called substitution, which was something that we discussed last week when we were talking about food fraud. Remember that with food fraud, “food may be intentionally misrepresented many different ways; one of which was through: substituting a product with something of a different character or quality.” (Government of Canada, 2020). So essentially when something is in the product that is not disclosed on the label.

I am going to talk about an instance that is more like two instances of potential substitution that made it BIG in the news a few years ago. Sarah - do you eat hotdogs? What are your favourite toppings?

S: I don’t typically eat hotdogs, I think the last one was camping! I made a bart simpson (when you cut the top of your hot dog to look like barts hair). 

B: Now both of these instances of substitution occur with hot dogs, and they are so unusual and disgusting that I had to share. I know it had me initially rethinking every time I have eaten a hot dog. That being said, most of the information that I am sharing today was first uncovered by Snopes, which I had no idea is an investigatory fact checking source, until our university librarian told us 2 weeks ago.

I should also mention that I tried to find the original source of this information from a company called Clear Labs, Inc. But the webpage no longer exists. I don’t know if this is because the information was proven inaccurate or if there is some industry stuff going on behind the scenes that made them take it down. Regardless, it’s a bit strange. But Clear Labs is a food safety lab and their website claims that you can “rely on [them] for the most accurate and advanced food safety testing” (Clear Labs, 2020). It sounds legit, right? 

Both of these cases of food substitution and their subsequent news reporting were due to a single report released by Clear Labs in 2015.

I don’t know if you remember this, but there were a ton of headlines claiming that 10% of vegetarian hot dogs contain meat. 

Clear Labs analyzed 345 hot dogs and sausages from 75 brands and found that 14.4% were problematic. They found that 10% of veggie dogs did in fact contain some meat, and that some kosher hot dogs included some traces of pork. They claimed that chicken was found in 10 samples, beef in 4 samples, turkey in 3 samples and lamb in 2 samples. Based on this evidence alone, it would seem like they had done their research. They are giving you a breakdown of the different types of cells they found in the products; AND for all we know, based on the media coverage, they are a legitimate food lab. What’s worse is that they claimed to have found human DNA in 2% of the hot dog samples as well, ⅔ of which were veggie dogs. This was claimed to likely be due to poor hygienic practices, versus something like a dead body being added to the hot dog meat. Honestly, I don’t know which one sounds more disgusting. 

The 75 brands that were tested came from 10 different retailers - so these were mainly very large organizations with multiple brands; BUT Clear Labs failed to mention which brands had been tainted with meat - both animal and human. Now this is where I get my feelers up - why not disclose the names of the brands that are partaking in these instances of food fraud or neglect? It’s suspicious.

Upon looking into this further, these claims seem to have been made without any transparency as to how they determined the numbers that they published, what types of testing they did, whether their claims could be backed up, or what their objectives in releasing this information might be. BUT I can tell you what I think their motivation may have been.

Around the same time that this Hot Dog Report came out in October 2015, they started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for Clear Food, which was what they called the consumer initiative for Clear Labs Inc. Their claim was that they “can discover hidden additives, trace allergens, and unintended ingredients” in consumer products. And in the campaign description they mention the content of the Hot Dog Report. They also mention how they measure the makeup of food products based on their own scoring system, called the Clear Score - which they say is the “most accurate and objective food rating system for consumers” (Clear Food, 2015). Which is like saying they are sharing the most factual facts. And I am going to guess that if you have to tell people that you are the MOST objective, you likely aren’t. Anyways - they claimed that the way they calculated this Clear Score was by comparing the molecular contents of foods against their packaging claims. And the higher the score, the more likely you are purchasing what’s on the label. However, they don’t disclose how they obtain the molecular contents, what molecular contents they are measuring or what tests they use. 

In this Kickstarter campaign, they raised over $100k Canadian, but were ultimately unsuccessful as they were about $17k shy of their goal.

One other thing to make note of is that Clear Labs published this information as a report, not a study (Snopes, 2015). In a study, you present your findings on a research topic - these findings are not your own, as they are facts. Whereas a report can include experiences and unique perspectives on a topic - so it is more of a subjective investigation than actual objective research - as your own experiences may guide you.

So in a study you might answer the question: What is the genetic makeup of this hot dog? And report the different types of genetic information found.

In a report, you might answer a question like: What is the best vegetarian hotdog? And while you may present some research to back your claim, you can also interview people to find out what they think or visit restaurants to find out for yourself.

As of today - over 5 years later - both of these instances remain UNPROVEN. No research that I could find has shown meat in veggie dogs or human DNA in hotdogs. Of the news articles that I did find, I did not see any retractions, even after this Hot Dog Report was taken down by Clear Labs Inc...which is a bit concerning.

Clear Labs motivation is still unclear to me. Were they trying to instill fear to raise money for their campaign? Did they intend for their report to be taken as fact and turned into the headline that it became? I don’t know. But the takehome message here is that you can keep eating your weenies, veggie or not. 

The Horsemeat Scandal

S: Okay - horse folks, this is your fair warning that today’s story might be a bit unsettling. Are you a horse person, Becca? This week - I’m going to be talking about the European horsemeat scandal, aka. Horsegate. And this story is a lot but it’s one of the most well-known food scandals and we had to cover it at some point! There are so many moving pieces to this story, I could not have even started to make sense of it without the work of Felicity Lawrence, an investigative journalist for the Guardian who broke this story and covered the entire scandal. 

Horsegate was a European food fraud scandal in which products being sold as beef (burgers, frozen meals, and ready-meals), and were found to contain undeclared horsemeat - in some cases as high as 100% horsemeat - and it was a really BIG deal. It started in Ireland and spread all over Europe, eventually impacting over 20 countries, interrupting major supply chains, was responsible for millions of product recalls, and it completely shattered consumer trust in the European food industry. And I think the frustrating part about this story is that no one was really held accountable - while there were some smaller convictions for negligence and small fraud, there hasn’t been a notable conviction that would really put consumer minds at ease. 

The horsemeat scandal came to light on January 15, 2013, when the Irish Food Safety Authority was conducting their normal monitoring activities and they tested some frozen beef burgers - some common brands sold by major supermarkets in the UK & Ireland, and of the burgers that they tested, 37% contained horse DNA aka horsemeat. Most of the burgers only had trace amounts of horsemeat, which is still a little concerning, but one of them (a Tesco Everyday Value burger) contained over 29% horsemeat- and this number was shocking and, of course, the one that the media reported widely. In this same batch of testing, 85% of the burgers tested contained pig DNA. 

Now - this was obviously a really big deal, and in the weeks that followed, public outrage spread all across the UK and Ireland. Horsemeat is not a part of the food culture in Ireland or the UK, and people were not happy about finding out that they had been eating horse or pig without their consent, and it’s especially awful because many people in Jewish and Muslim communities eat kosher or halal and intentionally don’t consume pork products. 

Following this revelation, extensive testing began all across the European Union where 4144 samples that were labelled as “beef” for retail and restaurants were tested, and of these nearly 4200 samples, 4.66% contained horse DNA. Another 8000 samples were collected from various points along the supply chain (producers, processors, and distributors) and of these 8000 samples 1.38% of them contained horse DNA. 

So definitely a widespread problem, but not a widespread 30% problem.  

In the immediate aftermath of this first revelation - major supermarkets like Tesco and Dunnes began withdrawing the tainted products from shelves through massive product recalls and this lasted for months as more revelations came to light through testing. So, it started with frozen “beef” patties being the original offender, and eventually extended to fresh beef products and ready-made products like frozen lasagne, moussaka, bolognese, and shepherd's pie. As more corporations and organizations began testing their products, it was slowly revealed that horse meat was found in burger king burgers, some IKEA sausages in Russia, and a fancy supermarket called Waitrose had meatballs that were contaminated with pork. One particular brand of frozen food called Findus was selling beef lasagne that tested at 60-100% horsemeat.

So, how did this happen?  There are a handful of major supermarkets in the UK that most people get their food from, and these supermarkets operate under a sole supplier-many buyer relationship, which means that many retailers have the same supplier or a small number of supplier options, and those suppliers have a lot of control over what enters the food system. This sole-supplier, many-buyer system set the stage for a power imbalance (where the suppliers have most of the power over the food supply) that led to a supplier culture that supported greed and unethical decision making and there weren’t really any checks in place. So the meat supply system was primed for crime.

All of these frozen beef burgers that were originally tested originated from 3 meat plants in the UK and Ireland, and at the heart of those meat plants was ABP foods, which is one of Europe’s biggest beef processing companies owned by Larry Goodman. ABP foods always declined to share where their burger meat came from, and they said no one in the company ever bought horsemeat and they didn’t know they were putting horse in burgers mislabelled as beef. Put a little a sticky note on that, because this “I didn’t know” theme is common throughout this scandal. Note: it’s not illegal to put horse in beef burgers, but it must be labelled as horse. 

So why might someone put horse in a beef burger? In a nutshell, it’s cheaper. Consumers cut back on their spending in the face of recession, so retailers were seeking cheaper meat and at the same time, manufacturers' costs were increasing as has the cost of grain needed to feed cattle and the energy required for processing were both very high. Also, during this time Europe was coming out of the recession and many horse owners were hit hard financially and could no longer afford to keep their horses and ended up selling them off. Consumer demand meets high cost of beef meets increased availability and lower cost of horsemeat = Horsegate 

Okay, so back to ABP foods - it came to light that one of their suppliers was Willy Selton. Willy had a meat factory in a town Oss, Holland, and two weeks after this scandal broke, he was ordered to recall 50000 tonnes of meat that he had sold to 16 different countries because he was unable to show where it had come from. 

Felicity Lawrence, remember her - the investigative journalist from The Guardian, she retraced the entire route of a truck containing horsemeat and it led her back to Willy Selton. Dutch authorities alleged that Willy had received 300,000 tonnes of horsemeat over the past few years, but his books reflected none of it. Willy Selton was arrested in May 2013, and despite maintaining his innocence, was jailed for 2.5 years for forging using forged documents to sell meat. A quote from Willy: "I am not the big horsemeat swindler they're all looking for. I was careless with my administration, but not intentionally."

So where was Willy getting his meat from? Turns out, and horse lovers - maybe cover your ears, old, sick horses from Northern Ireland were being exported to Scotland and the UK, and these horses were being sent to slaughterhouses through an Irish trader who was then was selling to Red Lion Abattoir who was selling to Willy Selton who was selling to ABP foods. 

Can you believe they call a slaughterhouse an abattoir? That’s a euphemism and a half!!! Sounds like a fancy cafe but it’s a death-filled factory. 

Red Lion (the abattoir) was charged with falsifying passports - because horses travel with passports that identify them by # and allow them to travel internationally - and has been closed down by the Food Standards Agency after failing to meet standards for the safe production of meat, and from what I could find online, they haven’t reopened.


Two other men were jailed for their involvement in another part of this scandal - Andronicus Sideros and Ulrick Nielsen - were jailed for 4.5 and 3.5 years respectively for a conspiracy to sell 30 tonnes of horsemeat as beef. Sideras’ fingerprints were found on suspicious beef labels attached to a shipment of 30% horsemeat and 70% beef in Northern Ireland. Nielsen bought the horsemeat and had it delivered to a wholesale meat distributor in North London. 

Can you see how this gets insanely complicated and difficult to track? There are so many changing hands, It’s a perfect storm of not being regulated properly, casting blame on someone else, not taking responsibility, and no one being held accountable. 

Okay - so far we’ve talked about just the blue lines. I haven’t even mentioned that wild red path yet! So the French branch of this scandal took a different route than the UK/Irish one. 

In February 2013, the French government announced that a major meat processing company called Spanghero, located in Spain, knowingly sold horse meat as beef to a French company called Comigel. Spanghero had been importing horsemeat from Romania - and Romania was labelling it properly as horsemeat - then Spanghero would intentionally relabel it as beef - and resell it to Comigel. Remember that sole supplier-many buyer relationship? Comigel was the sole supplier for many major retailers in France, Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK. So - this raises the question, who’s fault is it - Spanghero, who intentionally supplied horsemeat and mislabelled it as beef? Or is it Comigel, who bought “beef” at a below-market price and didn’t verify? 

And while it’s pretty obvious that Spanghero is at fault, it’s also quite unlikely that Comigel didn’t notice that there was a different texture and smell and they also have a responsibility to ensure that they are getting what they purchase, right? 

If this isn’t confusing enough, there is yet another horse meat supplier. Spanghero’s holding company purchased horse meat from a trader in Cyprus who purchased their meat from a Dutch company called Draap. Draap is the Dutch word for horse (Praad) spelled backwards, and this company is owned by a guy named Jan Fasen who has a previous conviction for horsemeat fraud from 2007. And Draap was purchasing the horsemeat from two Romanian slaughterhouses - so again, tracing the meat all the way back to Romania.

Jan Fasen was arrested in 2019 along with four other, but as far as I could tell, court proceedings are still in process or charges were dropped - very limited information online about this arrest. 

& that’s really it for arrests - so you can see that there isn’t a huge amount of people being held accountable for such a massive scandal. 

Okay - so eating horsemeat is technically safe and a common part of traditional diets all around the world, but a major concern in this underground horsemeat trading ring was that phenylbutazone could have entered the supply chain for human consumption. Phenylbutazone is often called “bute” and it’s a painkiller given to horses - and the legal sale of horses is VERY tightly regulated, they have passports and medical documents  - and horses that have been treated with “bute” can not be legally used for human consumption. While there is no evidence that horses treated with “bute” did enter the supply chain, there is also no way of knowing, especially since we know that one of the horsemeat traders did use falsified horse passports. But even if horses treated with bute did enter the food system, this is another case of “the dose makes the poison”: The UK's Chief Medical Officer at the time, Sally Davies, said the level of contamination, 1.9 mg/kg, posed "very little risk to human health" and around 500–600 burgers containing 100% horse meat would need to be eaten to receive the daily human therapeutic dose. So not a concern, but this is an example of how food fraud can pose serious human health risks and why it’s so important to have accurate labelling on our food. 

Okay - so how did consumers respond overall? This is a quote by judge Owen Davies (Sideras case): “The confidence in the food chain was affected adversely, and the share prices of big supermarkets were affected, and it is difficult to recreate the feeling of anxiety that the public had at the time this all emerged.”

So the retailers and the consumers are the real victims here. Consumers responded by changing their shopping habits. A report found that 60% of consumers changed their shopping habits in response to this scandal, with 30% buying less processed meats and  24% choosing only vegetarian ready-made meals. Organic food sales rose, as organic foods as organic foods are often seen a symbol of integrity, locality, and quality, increasing by 8.4% from January to February 2013. 

Retailers responded with a commitment to purchase more local meat and tighten up their supply chain and be transparent about the sources for their products. They introduced the red tractor logo to show that the product is fully traceable by independent inspectors.

After all the allegations came to light, Professor Chris Elliot from Queens University in Belfast wrote an extensive review looking into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks across the UK and Ireland. & Becca, if we could get a guest on the podcast someday, it’s gotta be this guy - I listened to a podcast with him and he played this game where you can name any food - literally any food - and he can describe the food fraud associated with that food. Parmesan (cardboard), Oregano (olive and strawberry leaves), etc. 

The UK food industry has some of the strictest food safety policies in the world, but preventing and protecting against food crime at this time wasn’t a key element. Food safety is different from food fraud. So the Elliot review makes recommendations to protect against food fraud based on the 8 pillars of food integrity: Consumers First, Zero Tolerance for food fraud/food crime, Intelligence Gathering by gov’t and industry, 

Laboratory Services for audit, inspection, and enforcement, Audit to identify the risk of food crime, Government Support, Leadership, Crisis Management - so having mechanisms in place for dealing with these types of things. 

Following Elliot’s review, the UK established the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) which is tasked with protecting consumers and the food industry from food crime within food supply chains. Canada currently does not have a dedicated food crime unit, and as far as I could tell, the US doesn’t have one either. 

Horsemeat & Top Chef Canada 

& that’s mostly it for the scandal, but I have another side story. 

I mentioned earlier, eating horsemeat might seem really weird and even ethically wrong and repulsive to some of us, but it's a traditional food in many cultures, including French cuisine. In 2011, an episode of Top Chef Canada featured horsemeat and outrage ensued. The episode was French themed, horsemeat is fairly common in Quebec because of the French heritage, and the challenge was to cook with different unique traditional french proteins, and one chef selected horse and made a horse tartare - the judges tasted it, thought it was fine, and it wasn’t really even an important part of the show, barely got screen time. BUT people were mad - media outlets reported it, there was a Facebook page calling for a boycott of Top Chef Canada with over 5000 followers (and it’s still there, you can look it up). 

The Food Network defended using horse as part of “a truly authentic, traditional French menu.” The Food Network ended up pulling the episode from its website. 

Cultural norms keep horse off the menu in the US and for the most part in Canada, with the exception of QC, but there are other reasons why horse is not common here: slaughterhouses are designed to be as efficient as possible and humane as possible for cattle but not for horses, which would require different considerations, and old racing horses have typically been given phenylbutazone - which means they legally can’t be used. There is also a major cultural connection to horses and they are seen as companions, very similar to dogs or cats. 

James Serpell, who studies human-animal interactions and is a professor of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania said:

“There’s some interesting things going on in Asia now with a lot of local resistance to the idea of eating dogs and eating cats… there’s certainly a cultural shift going on, and it’s due to the rise in pet-keeping in these countries and the experience of having those animals as family members, which is turning them off the idea of eating them. It actually would make a lot of sense to eat horses. It seems like a terrible waste of protein, but it makes sense to people from an emotional and cultural perspective.”

Which - I honestly feel as well - the idea of eating horses, even though last week I admitted that I tried it once - is so unappetizing and kind of turns my stomach. It’s a neigh from me! 

R: Before we finish off today’s episode, I have our teaser question for next week. Sarah - when it comes to the holidays, or just your day-to-day are you more on team sweet or team savoury?

S: Ah, it feels so good to not be talking about horsemeat. When it comes to the holiday’s, I’m team sweet all the way!! What about you?

R: Team sweet for the holidays! 

R: Thanks for listening to this episode of Dietetics After Dark. You can find all the references and materials used to put this podcast together in our show notes at 

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