(NaturalNews) Immediately after discovering that their ground beef might have been contaminated with horse meat, Irish and British consumers were far more concerned about the honesty of food labeling than about potential health consequences, according a consumer study conducted by the EU-funded project FoodRisC.
On January 15, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced that DNA tests had found traces of horse and pig meat in ground beef. Since then, beef contaminated with horse meat has also been identified in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland. It still remains unclear where the contamination originated.
"For the four weeks ending 17 February frozen burger sales were down by 42 percent as shoppers chose to buy alternative meals," said David Berry of consumer monitoring company Kantar Worldpanel.
The survey of consumer responses to the scandal was performed by researchers from Brunel University and University College Dublin using the online survey tool Vizzata. 22 Irish and 22 British meat-eaters who regularly shopped in at least one affected store participated in the study, which allowed them to post questions and comments about the scandal between January 19 and 27.
"Using Vizzata provided us with an opportunity to learn at a very early stage what sense consumers made of official communications from key agencies," lead researcher Julie Barnett said. "Uniquely it allowed us to identify exactly what questions consumers were asking."
What else are they lying about?
Consumers' biggest concern, the study found, was that the products had been falsely labeled as containing only beef. They also wondered how long the contamination had gone undetected, and what had spurred the government to perform the tests in the first place.
"How often are these tests actually run?" one 33-year-old UK female asked. "Is it possible the horse and pig meat had been going in to the burgers for a very long time till it was discovered?"
Consumers wanted to know what other beef products might be affected, where the contamination had come from, how future contamination was going to be prevented, and who was going to be held accountable for the problem.
Few consumers expressed worries about the health effects of eating horse meat itself, although some consumers expressed concern that if they couldn't even trust government and industry to tell them what was in their burgers, how could they trust their safety assurances either?
"It's not so much a food safety issue, it's a food fraud issue," said Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler, echoing these concerns. "Obviously if someone's willing to fraudulently sell you horse meat and tell you it's beef, you have to question their interest in food safety as well."
Although there is no reason that horse meat is intrinsically unhealthy - indeed, it is regularly consumed in many countries - many health advocates have expressed worry about the consumption of former work or racing animals. For example, former USDA Food Safety Undersecretary Richard Raymond said that concerns have been raised about the safety of the drug butazolidin ("bute"), which is widely used to treat arthritis and lameness in racing horses.