What’s all this about China and rat meat?
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security for the People’s Republic of China announced a three-month crackdown on food safety violators, some of it involving rat, fox and, mink flesh being sold as lamb meat. They reportedly uncovered 383 cases of meat-related crime and made 904 arrests of people suspected of selling 20,000 tons of fake, diseased, or counterfeit meat.
Is this the first time food fraud has been committed on this scale?
Not only is it not the first time, it’s not the first time this year. In mid-January, traces of horse DNA were discovered in the meat supply of Familjen Dafgard, a Swedish company that provides meat to the UK branches of Burger King, Nestlé, Tesco, IKEA, and Taco Bell, among others. It resulted in a massive recall (1,675 pounds of meatballs to IKEA alone) and a lot of bad press for all the companies involved.
But this won’t affect me, right? This is just overseas. The U.S. is still horse and rat meat-free.
Oh Jesus Christ! Are you serious? I’ve been eating rats?
Maybe not rats, but you’re definitely not always eating what you think you’re eating. This past January, a study by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention revealed that reports of food fraud were up a staggering 60 percent. (Food fraud, according to the USP, constitutes any “deliberate substitution, addition, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.”) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife bureau claims that 55 million pounds of “bushmeat” — meat from exotic African wildlife, including baboons, chimpanzees, and rats — are exported into the U.S. each year, the majority of it ending up in New York City, Miami, or Los Angeles. NPR’s This American Life featured a story in January in which a farmer “with some standing in the pork industry” claimed pig rectum was being sold in the U.S. as imitation calamari, although no conclusive evidence was found.
So what are you saying? I might be eating pig rectum or chimp chops without realizing it?
We’re saying that despite all the efforts made by the Food and Drug Administration, there’s only so much they can do. They only have the resources to inspect about 2.3 percent of all food imports. And increasingly foreign exporters have gotten cleverer in beating the rules. When China-made honey laced with antibiotics was first banned from U.S. supermarkets back in 2002, Chinese manufacturers found a way to launder their tainted products with middleman suppliers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Uruguay, and Mexico. “There are a near infinite number of bad guys, and there are a near infinite number of ways they can commit food fraud,” Dr. John Spink, Director of the Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University, told us. “If it’s not horse meat, it’s rat meat. And if it’s not rat meat, it’s something we don’t know about yet. They’re going to find ways around the system.” In other words, every time you eat something that you didn’t personally grow or kill and then cook yourself, you can’t be 100-percent sure.
Okay, now I’m fucking paranoid. Should I just stop eating meat entirely?
Dr. Ian Lipkin, a microbiologist and virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, told us it might not be the worst idea to take some personal responsibility for what you’re putting in your mouth. “Any discriminating consumer with access to rudimentary molecular biology equipment can determine the identity of his or her mystery meat,” he says. “I expect more people will do so as stories like