I recently attended a conference for food regulatory veterinarians in Ireland. The head of the Irish Food Safety Agency, Allen Reilly, discussed the EU horse-meat scandal. He stated that it was “amazing the scale of this.” Europe has very strict laws for tracking the movements of live animals, but after the meat leaves the plant, it disappears into a byzantine maze of brokers, who trade frozen trimmings.

These “poly blocks” are traded and re-traded all over Europe. When Irish authorities started doing lab tests, they found beef that had levels of horse meat that ranged from trace amounts to 29 percent horse meat. One poly block contained a microchip from a Polish horse mixed in with horse DNA from Ireland. The frozen slabs of trimmings were being traded by countless brokers throughout Europe and their movements were not tracked.

Poly blocks of frozen trimmings from one source were being re-ground with other poly blocks from other places. The supply chain was long and in some cases, the blocks of frozen meat may have gone through several EU countries. DNA analysis revealed that the meat came from many different origins. Further processors were using frozen trimmings where they had no idea where they came from.

There was also evidence of massive paperwork fraud that was coordinated across Europe. The reason why processors were so willing to mix horse with beef was due its cheaper price.

Could it happen here?

The structure of the US supply chain would greatly reduce the chances that mixing different species of meat would happen in the US. The grinding companies that supply McDonald’s, Wendy’s or large supermarkets buy trimmings directly from large plants that process a single species. A high percentage of the trimmings are fresh, so going through lots of brokers would be impossible. Fresh trimmings have to be made into products within a few days. The frozen blocks marketed in Europe could remain in a long convoluted supply chain for months. Our industry needs to be able to prove that the different structure of the US industry would inherently help keep horse meat or other fraudulent ingredients out of the supply chain.

Meanwhile in the US, the cowherd is at its lowest point in 50 years. As I travel around, I’ve seen how the pastures in the West are all burnt up. In March, I traveled to Midland and Odessa, Texas, and went to Howard College in Big Spring. The desert had no forage and I saw no cattle. Meanwhile, the Eastern cattle industry is doing well. They have plenty of rain and producers in Arkansas and other areas of the east have lots of cattle. Drought has greatly reduced cattle numbers. You don’t realize how serious the drought has been until you see the land.

In Ireland and England, record cold has stopped pastures from growing. I flew in a helicopter over about 50 miles of Irish pasture and there I saw nothing for livestock to eat. Producers in Ireland reported that thousands of cattle and sheep have either been sold or have died.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.