Supermarkets, under pressure to offer cheap food, demand suppliers provide products for less. That means bulking out burgers with the cheapest ingredients possible.
Some in Britain have blamed the horsemeat fraud on an abrupt European ban on the use of "desinewed meat," the minced flesh that comes from rubbing animal carcasses that have already been stripped of prime cuts. Desinewed meat played a major role in British meat products — but since last year's ban, suppliers have had to find a replacement.
And that, some believe, is where horsemeat came into the picture.
Elizabeth Dowler, professor of food and social policy at the University of Warwick, said the root of the problem is that food has become a vast international industry whose main concern is the bottom line.
"Food is treated as a commodity," she said. "It is not seen as something that contributes to well-being.
"The reality is that the food system is largely in the private sector and it is about running businesses, very successful businesses that make a lot of money."
European fears about horsemeat echo those that swept across the United States last year when the use of a meat product dubbed "pink slime" became widely known.
Like desinewed meat or horseflesh, it was never alleged that "pink slime" was unfit for human consumption, but the thought of fatty bits of beef being treated with a puff of ammonia to kill bacteria was something of a turnoff for Americans.
The reaction to "pink slime" was drastic.
Fast food companies, including McDonald's, changed their menus. Grocery stores promised to stop selling it. All but three states opted against buying meat with the product for school meals. And the meat processors that churned out the product began closing plants and laying off employees.
Cazes-Valette predicted a similar reaction in Europe.
"People will go back to buying pure beef, that they're going to prepare themselves," she said. "Maybe they're even going to go back to the butcher, where they know what's going on."
And, she added, rather than pay more "they're going to eat less."
But Michael Walker, a science and food law consultant to British food-testing and analysis company LGC, said it will be hard for people to break their dependence on a complex food supply chain, especially if they want year-round availability of a wide range of products.
Walker said the horsemeat scandal shows the system of testing and regulation is fallible, but not fundamentally broken.
He said the science of DNA testing that exposes adulterated meat is robust, but that regulators, many of whom are facing government budget cuts, needed to use more "intelligence-led sampling" to catch offenders.
"The ingenuity of fraudsters is almost infinite, but we must do our best to try and keep up," he said.
Hinnant contributed from Paris.
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