When you picture a pristinely pastoral meadow, majestically chock full of frolicking fillies and sauntering stallions, what's your reaction? Do you go the Roy-Scheider route and exclaim, "We're gonna need a bigger salt lick," or run for the hills as you brace for the ensuing horsepocalypse?
If you happened to pick any of the above, you best believe your sugarcubes that you're dead wrong. It turns out that what some European criminals faced with the same scene thought was this: "Time to get my Ocean's Eleven on and rake in some clandestine cash."
According to Chris Elliott—Britain's leading food fraud authority, a professor at Queen's University Belfast, and the Director of the Institute for Global Food Safety—Europe's 2013 horsemeat scandal may actually have been responsible for the mysterious disappearance of 50,000 horses.
That's right: The esteemed man tasked by the British government to lead an independent review of its food systems told attendees at a recent Food Fraud Conference in England that the scandal was most certainly the cause of approximately 50,000 horses vanishing throughout Europe. He also said that it could happen again if the underlying problem—a criminal marketplace in horsemeat sales—was not addressed.
Professor Elliott said at the conference that food fraud had in recent years grown into an organized, global, criminal enterprise with mafias and drug cartels each vying for control of expanding markets. There's a lot of money to made selling horsemeat.
Elliott believes that the disappearance of a huge number of horses began with the financial crisis in 2008. Horse owners were unable to feed the beasts of burden, leading the animals to being sold into the food supply system.
Criminal gangs got involved: "The idea that 50,000 horses could just disappear may seem incredible to some, but the scale at which some of these gangs can operate is huge. Wherever there is money to be made—and the sums involved in food fraud are in the billions—criminals will find a way."
Yes, Brits have been unknowingly eating horse meat. But next time, the food fraud could lead to illnesses or deaths. Elliott called the scandal a wake-up call for Britain. He also insinuated that the nation was at a critical turning point: "While there was no direct evidence of a threat to public health, there have been food fraud scandals in other countries that have affected thousands—and in some cases hundreds of thousands—of people. In China in 2008, over 300,000 infants were made ill by adulterated milk, with six sadly dying."
Elliott went on to applaud the recent establishment of Britain's National Food Crime Unit as a needed and prudent move, but pointed out that vigilance and additional efforts were required.
"With organized gangs becoming attracted [to] food fraud, we must act now to prevent public health threats," he said.
We're all for shadowy, underworld organizations, but must they involve horses in all this intrigue? We may never regard a meadow filled with quietly grazing horses in the same way again.