BRUSSELS, Belgium — There are places where the food chain in Europe's meat industry is short and brutally simple.
In the Anderlecht butchers' market west of downtown Brussels, stall after stall displays man-sized sides of beef; trays of tripe, brain or liver; and piles of lamb chops, seared calves' feet and dark red joints of horsemeat.
The real vegetarian's nightmare, however, goes on out of sight.
Behind the market is a windowless, concrete building that serves as a slaughterhouse for the Belgian capital.
Shoppers don't see the livestock trucks arrive at loading bays behind the 120-year-old abattoir. Only a cloying odor, a heap of moist sheepskins glimpsed through a half-open doorway, or the blood-stained overalls of men emerging for a smoke, indicate what's going on inside.
The sharp end of the meat trade is not pretty.
Yuck-factor aside, butchers here say at least customers know what they are getting — unlike processed meat consumers across Europe, who discovered in February that they've been eating horse meat falsely labeled as beef.
"That sort of thing just couldn't happen here," says Julian Toma, a Romanian immigrant who has been working for 16 years at the Brussels meat market.
"The inspectors come every day and they go through everything, besides people can see straight away what they are getting," he says.
The irony for anyone scoffing at yet another European food scare — after the mad-cow and hoof-and-mouth disease outbreaks — is that the same problems may be arising here in the US, and consumers may never be aware of them.
After all, the EU’s food legislations is "probably the best in the world, the most advanced," says Frederic Vincent, the European Commission's health and consumer affairs spokesman — and experts in the US agree.
Swedish “meat” balls
Although Irish inspectors found traces of horse DNA in "beef" products back in January, the scandal hit global headlines last month when Swedish frozen food company Findus announced some of its frozen beef lasagnas sold in Britain were in fact 100 percent horse.
Investigators traced the meat back to horses slaughtered in Romania. However, the meat left there clearly labeled as horse. It then passed through a string of traders and processors linked to operations in Cyprus, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Virgin Islands and the Netherlands before ending up in the Swedish firm's processed pasta product on British supermarket shelves.
Investigations are still under way to discover the where the horsemeat was fraudulently mislabeled as beef.
Meanwhile horse is being found in more and more processed beef products — from IKEA's Swedish meatballs, to ravioli marketed by the Swiss food giant Nestle. With abuse apparently widespread, farmers and consumers want to prune the web of international middlemen that lays between farms and forks in Europe.
Of course, no system is flawless. "If somewhere along the chain you have somebody doing something very wrong, you can still end up with a massive case of fraud," adds Vincent.
European Union officials insist their system of tracking animals from the farm to the supermarket has enabled a rapid and effective response.
That raises questions about how such a crisis would be tackled in the US, which does not have a similar system for tracing meat, despite improvements to food-safety controls in recent years.
"The EU has it hands down in the area of animal identification," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
"We would like to get similar systems of animal ID and traceability in the US. The absence of a strong national program of animal identification means that our farmers are actually more at risk."
Europe introduced the traceability system after the mad-cow crisis in the 1990s. However, the EU leaves it up to national authorities in each of the EU's 27 members to implement the rules. Their performance is patchy, and has been undermined as the economic crisis leads to cuts in sanitary and veterinary services.
"We have less staff in the public service, so we have to target our controls more, we have to rationalize our work," a senior French veterinary inspector, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told GlobalPost.
"We make a risk analysis to grade each installation according to risk, that way we can prioritize who we check. It works pretty well. But when you get people who really want to cheat, that goes beyond the work of veterinary inspectors, it becomes a police issue."
In the light of the scandal, the EU's head office is seeking to further tighten rules, including by increasing punishments for fraudsters who bend safety rules or cheat on food labeling. Lawmakers however say more needs to be done to ensure national authorities apply the rules.
"Many member states are cutting back on funding for inspections, and right now we don't even know how long people have been fooled," said Linda McAvan, a British socialist member of the European Parliament. "If the EU does not put in place a better system to ensure proper inspections, a similar fraud will happen again."
Warning: free trade ahead
European consumers' associations now have another concern. With talks about to start on a sweeping free trade agreement between the EU and the United States, there are fears that Europe will be forced to accept US practices, such as the use of growth hormones in cattle raising or disinfecting chicken carcasses with chlorine.
"I'm more than worried," says Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organization, BEUC.
Goyens is working with consumer groups in the United States to ensure the free trade agreement harmonizes standards upwards on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than watering them down.
"In Europe, we believe we have stricter and more efficient food safety rules than in the United States," she told GlobalPost. "On the other hand, in the United States you have stricter rules on other things — medical devices, for example. The free trade agreement should not be an excuse for deleting or repealing protection that is in place. We are totally in line with our American colleagues on that."
The man likely to lead Europe's negotiating team says solutions can be found that will open up trade, while meeting consumer concerns.
"We are not going to change our legislation in Europe whereby there is no problem at all with hormone beef," EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said in an interview.
He suggested, however, that US beef producers would be able to set up a separate production line of hormone-free beef that could be exported to Europe. The chlorine-washed chicken may be allowed into the Europe markets, if it is clearly labeled.
"Label it in a very clear way — this chicken has been washed with chlorine — and if the customer in the end decides to buy it, okay, so he does," he told GlobalPost during a visit to the United States this month.
In a letter to De Gucht and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk this week, Goyens joined the leaders of US consumer organizations to insist the talks lead to the "highest level" of food safety and inspection standard, including a traceability system for animals, phasing out non-therapeutic antibiotic use for animals and a trans-Atlantic rapid alert system.
"We are very skeptical that a trade partnership built around regulatory convergence will serve consumer interests, and we will vigorously oppose a deal that dismantles existing EU and US consumer protection," they said.
Gregory Feifer contributed reporting from Boston.