How clapped-out work horses find their way into frozen meals
A cart passes the Doly-Com abattoir in Romania, one of the two abattoirs checked by authorities. photograph: vadim ghirda/ap
RomaniaFlorin 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 globalisation in food production and pressure from retailers to drive down costs has created a 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 (80 cent) per kilo for a horse, but 5.5 lei/kg (€1.25) for a cow. The animals butchered in Romania took a roundabout route to European 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 horse meat, one in Transylvania and the other at Botosani close to the borders with Ukraine and Moldova, of relabelling 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 the country.
“This is part of a much wider rural poverty issue. The government has glossed over it, and the international community has largely not bothered to find out what is really happening.”
Agriculture in Romania is outdated, with fragmented farmland and little mechanisation. For every square kilometre of arable land, Poland has more than six times the number of tractors that Romania can muster. Horse-drawn carts share the road with trucks.Around the CarmOlimp abattoir at Ucea de Jos, one of the two cleared by Romanian authorities of labelling horse as beef, horses still plough the plateau below the Fagaras mountains.
In Romania, where the average wage is €350 a month, a quarter of France’s minimum, agriculture employs 30 per cent of workers but accounts for only 7 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
CarmOlimp executive director Paul Soneriu said it produced about 60 tonnes of horse meat last year, less than 1 per cent of turnover. Most of its business is pork products.
“In Romania, the horse is not a noble animal like in England; it is just an animal for work,” he said. “When it becomes a burden for the villager because of its age or lack of feed, the Romanian peasant tries to make some money out of it.”