WASHINGTON (AP) — The horse meat scandal that is hitting Europe has yet to spread to the United States, allowing American consumers to rest easier when buying ground beef or sitting down for a plate of meatballs at Ikea.
The United States has rigorous meat inspections and horse meat isn't readily available. So, while it's certainly possible that small amounts of hidden horse meat has made its way into the United States, it's unlikely to become a larger problem.
Some questions and answers about the problem:
Q: What's happening in Europe?
A: Horse meat has recently been found mixed into beef dishes sold across Europe, including in frozen supermarket meals. It also has been found in meals served at restaurants, schools and hospitals. Furniture giant Ikea this week withdrew its famous meatballs from stores in 21 European countries and in Hong Kong, Thailand and the Dominican Republic after Czech food inspectors found traces of horse meat in them. Stores in the United States and Canada weren't affected because they use a U.S. supplier.
Q: Is horse meat safe to eat?
A: What is at issue is fraudulent labeling, not a health risk. Horse meat is usually safe to eat, but it's generally not consumed in the United States, mostly for cultural and ethical reasons. However, it's considered a delicacy in some countries.
Q: Are horses even slaughtered in the U.S.?
A: Not right now. Three horse slaughter plants were shuttered five years ago after court action. Those plants produced meat that was mostly sold overseas.
Q: But horses are slaughtered in Mexico and Canada. Companies could import that meat and use it as a cheap substitute for beef, right?
A: Probably not. No horse meat is imported to the United States, so it would be hard for U.S. companies to obtain it in large quantities.
Q: What is the U.S. government doing to make sure Americans don't face the problem?
A: U.S. food safety law requires meat inspectors to be present for a slaughterhouse to operate and those inspectors are present for many steps of the process. They can shut down the plants if they think something illegal is going on. The federal oversight also requires meat to be easily traceable to the plant where the animals were slaughtered.
Q: What about imports?
A: Only certain countries and companies can export meat to the United States, and the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service inspects products at the border and will test them if something appears to be amiss. According to the department, other checks include annual evaluations of the countries that export meat to the U.S. to make sure their food safety standards are those in the United States and on-site audits at least once every three years in every country that exports meat, poultry or egg products to the United States.